ELGAR: String Quartet in E minor; BRIDGE: Three Idylls; WALTON: String Quartet in A minor – Coull Quartet – Helios

by | Jan 17, 2007 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

ELGAR: String Quartet in E minor; BRIDGE: Three Idylls; WALTON: String Quartet in A minor – Coull Quartet – Helios CDH55218, 72:38 ****:

This splendid release first hit the stores in 1994, and now Hyperion has seen fit to give it a new sendoff on its midprice Helios label. This was always a fine recording, and to have it in such great sonic shape again for a reasonable outlay is a double blessing indeed. The Elgar is of course one of his late, post-Great War masterpieces; and as we have come to expect from this composer, not exactly a paradigm of innocence and optimism. One might as well label it from the “Land of Faded Hope and Glory” for all of the gloomy remonstrations and utterly malignant sense of apocalyptic fatalism. Yet for all of that, there is something profoundly human and moving in its three cynical movements that touch us over and over again. For although Elgar was in his last days regarded as something of an anachronism, the new dogs making a fast leap around him in the public eye, though even they would be fast eclipsed by the onslaught of ultra-modernism, he was and is in many ways quite ahead of his time. Like Mahler, whom only the excesses of the last century could readily reveal his prophetic utterances, Elgar saw with a keen eye not only the drudgeries of daily life without a beloved wife, or the horrors of man’s continuing hostility to man, but the glowering particles of an exploding world that would long outlast him.

His tiredness of life is hardly unexplainable considering all that was going on around him near its end (remember he started life as a mid-nineteenth century Romantic), and the final years that also saw some of the modern era’s most wonderful music spilling from his pen, must be taken with a strong dose of backward-looking fortitude, for the message found in this evocative and brilliantly constructed quartet (his only one) moves us as profoundly now as it undoubtedly did those who heard it in its time – albeit unwillingly – as the euphoria of the post-war years was not too tolerant of any gloomy reflection. This is music of rich evocation, provocatively played here.

Frank Bridge really did not share this sort of tendency to the dark side that so plagued his 20-year-senior colleague. Bridge was a very successful string player and conductor, and even such a curmudgeon as Sir Henry Wood looked to him for all sorts of musical services, especially in a pinch. Bridge was anxious to gain some fame by winning a composition contest in 1905 based on the having the word “Phantasy” in the title. He didn’t win, but that did not stop his string writing, and by 1906 we have this luscious little trilogy of Idylls, some of the most heartfelt and revealing music from that time. Bridge saw life in a more introspective manner, and while Elgar was concentrating on the end of humanity as found in the great themes of all time, Bridge was looking at the wind, sun, and stars from a very personal vantage point. The second movement serves as the foundation for his pupil Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. These are lovely miniatures, and have been repeatedly played on my system for days now.

Walton is the last great composer on this disc, and the only quartet by this amazingly talented 20-year-old was enough to impress the likes of Hermann Scherchen, Ernest Ansermet, Andre Caplet, and Egon Wellesz, who were all sitting on a composition jury that the young composer had submitted work to. Technically, it is as sophisticated as the Elgar, though the emotional tenor and even aural perception of the work are quite different. Walton is wonderfully spiky in everything he writes, and the quartet is no exception: angular, sassy, and refreshingly irreverent. It should be recorded far more often, so we are lucky to have this superb reading by the Coull, who have this music in their blood.

The sound is top grade Hyperion, and the program fills a huge gap in the discography.

— Steven Ritter  


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