Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2.
NAXOS 8.572578 (73:23
Text and Translation)
Back in the days when I frequented the leafy suburbs of Hampstead, Ronald Corp was mostly known for his excellent work as a conductor of choruses, both adult and children’s, in that part of North London. He has written a considerable
amount of vocal music, both soloistic and choral. It is, therefore, interesting to hear his first two string quartets (he has since written a third). Indeed, the success of the First Quartet, at its premiere by the Maggini Quartet in 2008, seems to have opened a door to a new sphere of instrumental composition for the composer. The first thing that struck me, listening to the CD, was Corp’s complete assurance in the medium and an impressive degree of homogeneity in each quartet—indeed, between the two quartets, since Corp describes the latter as a “sister work” to the first: “This was intentional, there seemed so much more to say.”
The First Quartet is subtitled “The Bustard,” and the interesting liner notes by the composer go into some detail about the backstory. Suffice it to say here that the quartet is inspired by the bustard, apparently the largest flying bird in the world, which was “farmed and eaten out of existence” in Victorian time and which is now the subject of a concerted campaign to reintroduce the species onto Salisbury Plain. But this is no post-Messiaen applicant to the
. Stylistically, like the second quartet, it betrays almost nothing of the passing of the last hundred years, and this is a disappointment. Of course, I would not want any composer to write in an idiom that was untrue for him or her. It’s just that, while writing for large amateur choirs it is as well to produce something for which the singers will be grateful, it’s possible to be a little more daring with a professional string quartet. As the witches advised Macbeth in act IV of Shakespeare’s play, “Be bloody, bold, and resolute!” That said, both quartets are strong compositions and very attractive, not least because Corp is able to write good, energetic fast music, such as the
of the first quartet.
Back to the bustard: Corp avoids overtly describing the bird in music, though the rather halting opening is intended to represent it taking off (all 40 pounds of it) and the rest of the first movement and the third represent the bird in flight. The second is an evocation of Salisbury Plain at night (this is the location of the prehistoric Stonehenge), and the final movement nods toward a galliard, representing the bird on the ground, before resuming the vigorous
music of the first movement. The thematic interrelationship of all the movements gives the work a satisfying integrity.
The Second Quartet, a little longer at nearly half an hour, also relies on the sharing of themes between movements to give the work strength and, as before, Corp’s imagination does not let this be perceived as mere repetition, but rather an organic growth. The quartet was written in response to the birth of a baby, and the fast movements are suffused with a joyful exuberance that is compelling. One is sometimes reminded of Tippett’s earlier quartets though, unfortunately, without the intensity and imagination of that earlier composer’s works.
It would be nice to report that the much earlier
(1972), a song cycle for baritone and string trio, displays the results of a reckless youth. But, stylistically, there is not much to choose between it and the quartets. True, Corp does opt to declaim some of the poems (unconvincing, I felt), but that is the only conceivable nod to modernity. The poems are by a schoolmate of Corp’s (both are 60 this year), Steve Mainwaring. Rather wordy, which presumably accounts for the composer’s decision to run through the words in speech in some of the numbers (there isn’t a chance of any
here). “Come into the Garden” amusingly pits Mainwaring’s satirical text against a casual reworking of Balfe’s notorious arrangement of Tennyson’s poem
Come into the Garden, Maud
. Corp describes the seven poems he set as “variously poignant and notoriously outrageous,” and he duly delivers a studiedly English interpretation of that. But they are well-written! This isn’t damning with faint praise; I just wish Ron had gone out on a limb sometimes.
The members of the Maggini Quartet have the music under their fingers, and the performances are compelling. Mark Wilde has a fine tenor voice which I want to hear more of. It’s to his disadvantage that the first song is declaimed, but he finds a good balance between the arch speech that one often encounters in this situation and the sung rendition of most of the numbers, and is uncompromising in the downbeat endings of the second song and also the last. The recording is a little in your face, robbing the performances of some of the subtlety that I am sure they have. But Naxos should be congratulated for its commitment to composers off the beaten track.
FANFARE: Jeremy Marchant
Works on This Recording
Country Matters by Ronald Corp
Mark Wilde (Tenor)
Maggini String Quartet
Period: 20th Century
Written: by 1972
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