String Quartet No.1, Op.6
String Quartet No.2, Op.15
String Quartet No.3, Op.76
Maggini Quartet [Lorraine McAslan & David Angel (violins), Martin Outram (viola) & Michael Kaznowski (cello)]
Recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk between 7-9 December 2006
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: February 2008
CD No: NAXOS 8.570415
Duration: 63 minutes
The three string quartets of Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) span much of his career. The first is a relatively early work from 1935, the Second followed six years later and, after a gap of nearly thirty years, the Third appeared in 1970.
What strikes you first about the opening movement of the earliest of these works is its almost Beethovenian blunt vigour – this from the supposedly most Gallic of 20th-century British composers. Allied to an attractive harmonic astringency and occasional suggestions of Stravinsky-like dynamism, it raises expectations of a stimulatingly enjoyable work, which is amply fulfilled by the subsequent movements. In the gently unfolding second movement Berkeley seems to touch base with his English predecessors. It leads directly into the scherzo, whose muscularity, again, suggests a debt to Beethoven, and which has a delightful throwaway ending. The finale opens with an unassumingly terse little Theme that yields a sequence of six strongly contrasted Variations.
String Quartet No.2 is in three movements. Its opening is more elusive in tone than that of No.1, but the first movement as a whole covers a wide emotional range, from the urbane to the intensely dramatic. The introspective central movement is absorbed, rather than dispelled, by the energetic finale.
The Third Quartet is the most compact of the three (being in four movements but marginally shorter than the three-movement Second). The first movement combines argumentative and lyrical ideas and concludes by ascending to rarefied heights. Following a brief, concentrated scherzo, the profoundly thoughtful Lento builds from its delicate opening to explore areas of considerable emotional intensity. The finale is brisk and purposeful, but with a poignant recollection of the previous movement at its heart.
These works’ various moods are superbly characterised by the Maggini Quartet in this its first-released recording since Lorraine McAslan took over as First Violin. These musicians can turn on a sixpence when sudden changes of emotion, dynamics or texture is called for, and they are particularly adept at responding to moments of sly humour, the close of the third Variation in the First Quartet’s finale being a delightful case in point. The recording quality is well up to the high standard of previous releases.
Once again Naxos and the Maggini Quartet have put us in their debt with their exploration of 20th-century British repertoire, drawing our attention to some outstanding works we might otherwise have overlooked. How about Michael Berkeley’s string-quartet music as a follow-up?