String Quartet No.1 in F minor, Op.35
Valediction (Dylan Thomas, December 1953), Op.28
Brighton! [London premiere]
The White Bird
Passed the Last River [London premiere]
On Wenlock Edge
Robert Murray (tenor)
Andrew Sparling (clarinet)
Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)
Dante Quartet [Krysia Osostowicz & Giles Francis (violins), Judith Busbridge (viola) & Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello)]
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 7 November, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
The programme itself opened with music from one who might fairly be regarded as Vaughan Williams’s unofficial successor. Edmund Rubbra’s First String Quartet (1934) owes its definitive form to the prompting of the older composer – whose encouragement led his younger colleague to append a completely new finale, one growing organically out of the Largo, in 1946. That central movement, among the first in a long line of intensely contemplative such pieces that inform Rubbra’s instrumental works, is the quartet’s highpoint, with the questing Allegretto a reminder of the uncompromising nature of his firstforays into symphonic writing, and the Vivace a brusquely decisive conclusion. Combatively played by the Dante Quartet (whose quartet-cycle on is Dutton a sure highlight of the Rubbra discography), it was a reminder that Rubbra has been a composer unfairly overlooked since his death twenty years ago.
In the centenary of her death, it was appropriate that Elizabeth Lutyens be included. Her Valediction (1953) is a powerfully understated ‘in memoriam’ to Dylan Thomas – its two movements taking in an improvisatory Lento and more circumspect though equally ingenious Theme and Variations that set the seal on an austere but heartfelt tribute. Finely rendered by Andrew Sparling and Simon Crawford-Phillips, it gave notice of a talent as misunderstood in her lifetime as she has been neglected since.
The RVW Trust’s efforts on behalf of ‘present-day’ composers has been among its most valuable work, and it was fitting that this concert feature works by figures from the middle and younger generations. 60 this year, Michael Finnissy has amassed one of the most substantial and varied outputs of any composer today, and it would be good to declare “Brighton!” (2006) a worthy addition. Its text – from John Ackerson Erridge’s whimsical “History of Brightelmston” (1862), with some pointedupdating – invites an oblique humour to which this syllabic dissection, rhythmically monotonous and dully accompanied by an antiphonal ensemble of two violins, viola and cello, hardly begins to do justice.
Far more engaging were Gabriel Jackson’s The White Bird (1997), twelve pithy yet characterful and cohesive pieces inspired by the tragic (though probably successful) 1927 flight across the Atlantic and scored for clarinet and cello, and Christopher Mayo’s Passed the Last River (2006) – inspired by the 1793 crossing of North America. Deftly telescoping a wide range of textures and sonorities into a compressed and always eventful exploration for clarinet quintet, it suggests that this Canadian-born composer, now in his mid-twenties, is a figure likely to make his mark before long.
The programme ended, appropriately, with Vaughan Williams – and the first work in which his protean musical personality comes over in full. “On Wenlock Edge” (1909) has perhaps unfairly overshadowed several other equally fine Housman song-cycles, yet its unfailing sensitivity to the poems’ fatalistic sentiments, elegantly contoured vocal-line and atmospheric writing for piano and string quartet have made it an understandable favourite of performers and audiences alike. Insightfully sung by Robert Murray, and with Crawford-Phillips and the Dante Quartet unstinting in their support, it was a telling reminder of the creative force whose foresight led to the anniversary being celebrated in style on this occasion.