McEwen String Quartets, Vol. 1 – Chandos

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String Quartets –
No.4 in C minor (1905)
No.7 in E flat ’Threnody’ (1916)
No.16 in G ’Quartette provençale’ (1936)
No.17 in C sharp minor ’Fantasia’ (1947)

Chilingirian Quartet
[Levon Chilingirian & Charles Sewart (violins); Asdis Valdimarsdottir (viola) & Philip de Groote (cello)]

Recorded 19 & 20 February and 9 & 10 November 2001, Snape Maltings Concert Hall

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: November 2002

I picture a claymore-swinging, kilt-clad Highlander. In reality, Sir John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948) gravitated from Glasgow University to London’s Royal Academy (including twelve years as Principal). He also spent time in France, near Bordeaux, where Impressionism seeped through his musical pores to mix with his native culture.

This is not the first time that Chandos has looked at McEwen’s output – there are four previous releases of instrumental and orchestral pieces – but it is the first time that this writer has been smitten. This, the first volume of all McEwen’s string quartets (there are nineteen), really does make an impact. The French part of his creativity infuses ’Quartette provençale’ a delightfully rustic piece that reminds of Milhaud, with a hint of Bartók, its heart being an intimate slow movement that beautifully suggests the French countryside at night – ’Summer Evening’ – with cello drones perhaps masquerading as a lone bagpipe. No.7, from 1916, is an elegy for wartime, not a threnody that is burdened or dour, rather one that laments in resigned terms. It’s very affecting.

The Fourth Quartet is an amalgam of Beethoven, the fantasy of Schumann and the rich panoply of César Franck. It’s a lovely work of aching lyricism – try the ’Scottish’ slow movement – and high spirits, which has a distinctive flavour all its own and is a very pleasurable discovery. McEwen didn’t number his first two quartets, so No.17 is the final one. That McEwen hadn’t moved on stylistically – he remains late nineteenth-century – doesn’t matter. This quartet is, as so many ’last works’ seem to be, a distillation of the composer’s style – not a note is wasted, whether in reflection or in folk-style. Early Bartók remains a strong ally.

The performances are wonderfully committed and excellently recorded. The beginning of an important series.

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