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Elgar, Walton: String Quartets; Bridge / Coull Quartet

Release Date: 08/08/2006 
Label:  Helios   Catalog #: 55218   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Sir Edward ElgarFrank BridgeSir William Walton
Performer:  Philip GallawayRoger CoullDavid CurtisJohn Todd
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Coull String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 13 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Hyperion has reissued on its midpriced Helios label this fine program of English works for string quartet, recorded in 1994. The composers, born approximately 20 years apart in the order given in the headnote, offer an insight into the evolutionary trends in British music before, throughout, and after the 20th century’s two Great Wars.

Edward Elgar (1857–1934), who lived through the first of them, was deeply affected by it. Much of his music from the period, of which his E-Minor Quartet (1918) is a product, is colored gloomy, pessimistic, and weighted down by a profound sense of tragedy. Not without reason has Elgar been referred to as “the English Brahms.” If you love one, it is likely you love the other, for the musical
Read more connections are manifest. Passages from Elgar’s E-Minor Quartet seem to be ripped right from the pages of Brahms’s A-Minor Quartet; though I would have to concede—Brahms lover that I am—that the instruments sound more natural and comfortable in Elgar’s hands than they do in Brahms’s. This is a gorgeous work that extends the late 19th century well into the 20th; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had already sent shock waves through the musical firmament five years earlier (1913), and in that same year Webern’s Five Orchestral Pieces was causing apoplexy among the critical establishment. Elgar’s quartet takes no notice of the storms across the Channel; he was preoccupied with his own grieving and sense of loss.

Frank Bridge (1879–1941), though Elgar’s junior by 22 years, was a youthful bloomer, and made his mark early with a number of well-regarded chamber works, of which his 1907 second Phantasy, the one for piano trio, took first prize in a composition competition, and has remained a repertoire staple ever since. The Three Idylls heard here predate the Phantasy by one year and the Elgar quartet by a dozen years. Still, Bridge’s blurred harmonies and free tonality already point to a next generation of English composers after Elgar. In the main, this is easeful music—clearly intended by its title—a sort of testosterone-free Afternoon of a Doe, the counterfoil to Debussy’s male Faun. As a point of interest, it is the second of the Idylls, the “Allegretto poco lento,” that Benjamin Britten (Bridge’s only composition student) would later borrow as the basis for his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

With William Walton (1902–1983), we step into a world more fully in and of the 20th century. His barely post-WW II A-Minor Quartet (1947) adheres outwardly to a Classical structure—its first movement is a somewhat modified but thoroughly worked out sonata-allegro form—and retains a lyrical impulse rooted in tonal harmony. But extended stretches are also abrasively dissonant and driven by nervous, quirky, irregular, and combative rhythms. Given its date of composition, one might too easily conclude that the piece, though modern, is not especially innovative or progressive for its time; but the 1940s offer a dizzying mélange of musical styles and aesthetic persuasions. Composers as diverse as Bloch and Varèse, Reynaldo Hahn and Shostakovich, and Stravinsky and Richard Strauss were all alive and still active during this period.

The Coull Quartet (Roger Coull and Philip Gallaway, violins; David Curtis, viola; and John Todd, cello) does not exactly have the field to itself in these pieces. Competition in the Elgar comes from the Britten and Medici String Quartets, and in the Walton, from the English String Quartet. Still, the current release was an excellent choice when new, and now at reduced price earns an even stronger recommendation.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings in E minor, Op. 83 by Sir Edward Elgar
Performer:  Philip Gallaway (Violin), Roger Coull (Violin), David Curtis (Viola),
John Todd (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Coull String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1918; England 
Idylls (3) for String Quartet, H 67 by Frank Bridge
Performer:  Roger Coull (Violin), John Todd (Cello), David Curtis (Viola),
Philip Gallaway (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Coull String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1906; England 
Quartet for Strings no 2 in A minor by Sir William Walton
Performer:  John Todd (Cello), David Curtis (Viola), Roger Coull (Violin),
Philip Gallaway (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Coull String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1945-1947; England 

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