The players listed above are of course from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, reinvigorated by the artistic leadership of pianist Wu Han. Their new label, CMS, is looking like it is going to be a major player in the industry, if the releases so far are any indication. This release, with the intelligent and apt coupling of late Elgar and very early Walton, puts the lie to the notion that older and more mature is always the winner in terms of craftsmanship and inspiration.
The truth of the matter is that the Elgar quintet is a disturbing and inconsistent piece of music. It is diffuse, meandering, and manically moody. It is a haunting, subversively romantic work that lacks the glue needed to be persuasive. As a result of this lack of proper construction, the work dreamily (and even depressingly) works on the emotions in a negative way. This is not to say that art has no right to affect us thus; but it also has the duty to be understandable, and only in the Adagio do we fell secure in the direction that Elgar is trying to take us.
What a difference we find in the Walton, and this from a composer giving us his first major work at the age of 17! Though written at the same time as the Elgar, the tone could not be more diverse. The spiky rhythms and instinctively-wrought melodic content fit like a glove, making this work fully equal to many and other more “mature” products from composers who have contributed the piano quartet form. This was an auspicious start to a career marked by this same sort of careful, considered and integrated workmanship. When he turned 20 a few years later, the poems of Edith Sitwell’s Façade were set, and his career was off to the races.
I don’t think you can ask for better performances of this music. The Nash ensemble offers the Elgar along with his Violin Sonata on Hyperion, and the wonderful Maggini Quartet couples the Walton with his String Quartet, for those more inclined to a budget. But the sound on this disc, recorded at Lincoln Center, is second to none for standard CDs – only SACD would have improved it.
— Steven Ritter