Endnotes, July 2024

Fragment of a Crucifixion, Francis Bacon, credit Wikipedia

Endnotes, July 2024

In this edition: rare English String Quartets from Tremula Records * Homage, by Randall Svane, reviewed by Stuart Millson

The more one travels to music venues beyond the metropolitan centres ~ Mid-Wales Opera in Brecon (now de-funded by Arts Council Wales); the English Music Festival at Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire (not even a recipient of any state funding) ~ the more one encounters unsung heroes who are instrumental in rescuing parts of our national heritage. One such person is the tall and bespectacled Kenrick Dance, an affable, front-of-house figure at the English Music Festival, busily assisting concertgoers, not least through the Festival’s minibus service which he serves in the capacity of driver. A great advocate of the music of English composer, Walter Leigh, Ken has recently emerged as a record producer in his own right, ushering onto the music and CD scene the label, Tremula Records, dedicated to overlooked masterpieces from these islands.

A recent addition to the Tremula list is a recording of string quartets by Edmund Rubbra, Phyllis Tate and Peter Wishart. All three composers belong to the same generation, and their quartets all date from the early-1950s, an era often thought of as a conservative time for music, but actually a period in which British audiences began to hear a more abstract sound-world: Vaughan Williams’s Eighth Symphony, the works of Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh and the music of Michael Tippett.

Rubbra’s String Quartet in E flat major of 1951 is a strongly tonal work, with a sense of elegy, both in the first movement and in the Adagio tranquillo third section; there is some welcome emotional decompression in a soft-stepping scherzo, but which in its near-25 minutes of life, conveys a clear feeling of twentieth-century and post-war introversion. Rubbra, who made his home in the Chilterns, finds unsettled skies and deeply felt darker chords, beautifully and passionately played on this recording, first committed to disc in 1992 by the English String Quartet (Diana Cummings and Keith Lewis, violins; Luciano Iorio, viola; and Geoffrey Thomas, cello). In fact, the acoustic of the recording venue, Rosslyn Chapel, Hampstead, imbues the slow movements of the Rubbra and Phyllis Tate works with a poignant atmosphere of darkness, shadow ~ even of music that brings forth a palpable physical sense of coldness, remoteness. Certainly, the ethereal, slowly-circling Cantilena section (marked Andantino sostenuto) of Tate’s F major Quartet is a masterclass in taking music and the listener to the edge of unsettled dreams ~ a little like the feelings which gradually overcome you in the Neptune movement of Holst’s The Planets.

For Peter Wishart, who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and absorbed much from Stravinsky, a spikier more obviously continental framework and style can be discerned ~ in the way that Britten’s very English Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge sounds more at home in a salon devoted to Bartok. Wishart’s String Quartet No. 3 in A dates from 1954 and is the shortest piece in the collection, but the composer doesn’t waste any time on portentous build-ups or grand statements; or indeed any discernible imitation of his overseas teachers and mentors. But his work does sound the more ‘contemporary’ of the three quartets ~ the uncertain, stop-and-start introduction is certainly intriguing. Yet from this, a far-from-unpleasant sequence of less-obviously tonal music begins to dance on and develop into variations, new thoughts, recastings of earlier ideas. The first movement has a definite air of mystery, of tension. The Allegretto and Presto movements have wonderful precision and are most understated (given their ‘presto’ designations), but what is evident from the recording is a sense of each note, each line of this sublime music inspiring its interpreters to a performance of minute clarity, detail and gentle colour.

The QR congratulates Producer, Ken Dance, on reconstituting this attractive, collection. The Wishart is a real gem. We look forward to more great things from Tremula Records: a CD label in the ‘margins’, but actually with something to say ~ and a rival (in terms of imagination and outlook) to the larger commercial labels who seem to be only able to give us yet more symphonic cycles by Brahms or Mahler.

Finally, a preview, private audio file has reached The Quarterly Review of a new orchestral work by American composer, Randall Svane. Entitled Homage, this strongly flavoured Sibelian type tone poem brings a potent, late romanticism once again to our own age of anxiety and cynicism. The composer is already making great headway in the United States (notably in the world of church music) and ~ as he tells us ~ anticipates performances and a commercial recording of Homage; a piece that is meant as a tribute to his teachers, mentors, and musical collaborators through the years. The afore mentioned term ‘Sibelian’ comes to mind because the music grows and gathers in an expansive, well-orchestrated, highly textured tapestry, yet with taut, powerful, to the point arguments and scenes, very much like the Finnish master’s En Saga or The Oceanides. But there is also a tense section, reminiscent of the nervous energy at the outset of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements; and touches in the composition which take the listener to Mahlerian forests, or to the wide, open spaces of Randall’s fellow US symphonist of the 20th century, Roy Harris.

Randall Svane is clearly an heir to the romantic American tradition –  to Harris, Howard Hanson, and the Copland of An Outdoor Overture and the Third Symphony. We look forward to his name becoming a prominent feature of British orchestral programmes.

Head VI, Francis Bacon, credit Wikipedia

CD details: String Quartets ~ Rubbra, Tate, Wishart, played by the English String Quartet. Catalogue reference: TREM 102.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review


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