Alan Rawsthorne’s String Quartets

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Theme and Variations for Two Violins
String Quartet No.1 (Theme and Variations)
String Quartet No.2
String Quartet No.3

Maggini Quartet
[Laurence Jackson & David Angel (violins); Martin Outram (viola) & Michael Kaznowski (cello)]

Recorded 13-15 December 2005 in Potton Hall, Suffolk

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: January 2007
CD No: NAXOS 8.570136
Duration: 60 minutes

The Maggini Quartet and Naxos continue their sterling work on behalf of British chamber music with this superb release of music by Alan Rawsthorne (1905-71).

His three published string quartets span most of his working career, appearing in 1939, 1954 and 1964 respectively. Direct competition for Naxos’s release comes from the Flesch Quartet on ASV CDDCA 983, from ten years ago.

The First Quartet, a Theme and Variations, was originally the second of two movements but was published as a self-contained work. The Maggini pace it with a sure feel for both expressive contrasts and overall shape. Both the Maggini musicians and the Flesch play with admirable rhythmic tautness and passion, though the Flesch’s slower tempo in Variation 3 robs the repeated-note accompaniment figure of some of its urgency. The Flesch also ignore the accelerando marking for the last few bars which, from the Maggini, makes for a really exciting conclusion.

The Second Quartet is in four movements, ending with another (shorter) set of Variations. Where the Flesch is more introspective, the Maggini gives the first movement a greater sense of propulsive energy, and brings greater clarity to the increasingly complex textures of the final movement.

Quartet No.3 plays continuously and is in three clearly defined main sections, although these are not designated as separate movements. Its more astringent harmonic language is finely realised by both groups, but here again it is the Maggini that more consistently get under the music’s skin.

The Flesch Quartet includes the second of two unpublished quartets from the mid-1930s: a dramatic piece, well worth hearing. The Naxos disc, however, is lifted into the ‘essential’ category by including, instead, the Theme and Variations for two violins (1937), which, along with the (orchestral) Symphonic Studies, effectively launched Rawsthorne’s career. Laurence Jackson and David Angel project its contrasting facets with complete conviction – vigorously energetic in the quick music, searchingly expressive in the central ‘Rhapsodia’ and ‘Notturno’.

The booklet includes informative notes on the Theme and Variations and Quartet No.1 by John Belcher, of the Rawsthorne Trust, and the composer’s own notes on the Second and Third Quartets.

Rawsthorne will perhaps never be a really popular figure like his near-contemporary (and fellow-Lancastrian) William Walton, but his intelligence, lucid craftsmanship and emotional subtlety have earned him an honoured place in twentieth-century British music. This disc will tell you why.

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