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Thread: What is it about UK string quartets?

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    Senior Member jurianbai's Avatar
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    Default What is it about UK string quartets?

    Ok enough talk about the French and Sovyet String quartets, give some love to UK's now. Other reason I started this is because their works more accessible to me, as you can see the Maggini's done many of this works as published by Naxos.

    So what is it about UK string quartets? Here the composers I listen to for starter.

    Elgar's, only one quartet, not enough to see the consistency (Head_case's string quartet cycle dogma).

    Walton, string quartet in Am, my favorite maybe from UK. I got the record by the Coull Quartet who also do the Elgar.

    Bax, in G and in A Major. Maggini Quartet. They said underated and I read less about Bax overhere.

    Frank Bridge, 4 SQs + Three Idyllis and many more. Maggini.

    Bliss, no.1 in Bb and in A. Not much notable listening I found. Maggini.

    Then there is Britten's which completely different and I found harder to understand.

    there are many more, also from Maggini like Ireland's, Alwyn, Maxwell Davies but I have no references about them.

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    God cursed the Brits when it came to music.

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    Senior Member Earthling's Avatar
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    Vaughan Williams' two quartets -- and also his Phantasy Quintet (2 violins, 2 violas & cello) are lovely works.
    At last to guess, instead of always knowing. To be able to say “ah” and “oh” and “hey” instead of “yea” and “amen. ” ~ Wings of Desire

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    Quote Originally Posted by ScipioAfricanus View Post
    God cursed the Brits when it came to music.
    No, there is good music everywhere including Britiain. Some periods more than others perhaps, but that also tends to be the case in different places, things are cyclical. Some periods like the 19th century may have had more of an emphasis on literature but that will have been because that was were the patronage and encouragement was.

    Earthlings do have musical talent, and I'm sure our friend Earthling will agree, must be something to do with the large brain.

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    I've got a few similar to those naxos ones you mention, jurianbai.

    I agree that Bliss' String Quartet (No. 2) doesn't sound very memorable, but his Clarinet Quintet on the same disc is pretty good.

    Walton's String Quartet in A minor, was actually one of the first C20th SQ's that I heard, and I liked it's melancholy darkness and intensity right from that moment on. His earlier Piano Quintet on the same disc is a less "characteristic" work, written when he was just starting out as a composer. I can hear traces of Ravel & Vaughan Williams, and the driving piano part somewhat reminds me of Bartok.

    I've also got Tippett's String Quartets Nos. 3 & 5, also on Naxos played by the appropriately named Tippett Quartet. Some very fine counterpoint there, somewhat reminiscent of Beethoven, but not imitating him. The coda of No. 3 is just amazing, so simple yet intense, and not stereotypical at all. I've ordered the first volume (SQ's 1, 2, 4) but it has been delayed, I've been waiting literally for months for it to come from Europe. Really looking forward to listening to that when it finally does arrive.

    I also want to get the Naxos recording of Elgar's SQ & Piano Quintet. The former I have heard and found very memorable and unique (comparable in feel to the Walton, but from an earlier generation). The latter I have not heard, but am intruigued by (if it's half as good as his SQ, it'll be a worthwhile buy).

    I'm not really interested in Vaughan Williams or Bax, not much of their orchestral music has grabbed me (except perhaps The Lark Ascending, which I was fortunate enough to see in concert, and the latter's Tintagel). But I don't mind RVW's Partita for Double String Orchestra, but I can't stand his 5 Variants on Dives & Lazarus (repetitive and tedious, imo).

    As for other guys like Britten, Rawthsorne & maybe L. Berkeley I wouldn't mind getting some of the Naxos cd's of their SQ's. I've not heard much of their works, apart from some of Britten's more well-known efforts. I'm also interested in contemporary composer Thomas Ades, heard his Piano Quintet and it sounded very interesting. & haven't heard any of Maxwell-Davies works.

    That just about wraps it up as far as my interests in this realm are concerned. But as you can see, I've only just about scratched the surface when it comes to SQ/chamber music from the UK. This will change in the next couple of years, I'll put them on the backburner for a while...

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    Senior Member jurianbai's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Andre View Post
    That just about wraps it up as far as my interests in this realm are concerned. But as you can see, I've only just about scratched the surface when it comes to SQ/chamber music from the UK. This will change in the next couple of years, I'll put them on the backburner for a while...
    Same here, my role is just to trigger the talk and then I read from a far.

    I found Vaughan William's is quite minimalis, I only listened on Youtube.

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    I find Vaughan Williams quartets to be rather dull and sparse to draw me in genuinely -though the Phantasy Quintet is marvellous -

    Bax did the most interesting british chamber music and though the quartets arent as stunningly magical as his trios or quintets, his quartets have a beautiful subtle sound that is always reliably rich and moody (in a positive way)

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    Quote Originally Posted by ScipioAfricanus View Post
    God cursed the Brits when it came to music.
    You're right. I'd better inform the surviving members of the Beatles that they're music was rubbish and they'll be joining the other two in eternal damnation.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jurianbai View Post
    Ok enough talk about the French and Sovyet String quartets, give some love to UK's now. Other reason I started this is because their works more accessible to me, as you can see the Maggini's done many of this works as published by Naxos.

    Although I live here, I have never heard a single English string quartet being performed live!

    What indeed is it about UK string quartets.....which makes them so bland and unmemorable hmmmm? Walker Percy, the American southern writer came across this conundrum when looking at the task of assessing classical English literature (i.e. Jane Austen) versus say, French literature (the philosophical novel) by the likes of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Percy deigned that with Austen, there is no psychological import of existential value. The prettiness of the prose and the language, itself renders page upon page, irrelevant. You could skip chapters of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility and find that the protagonist is still so suffocated in dissimulation and emotionally/psychologically asphyxiated. In contrast, the French existential novel, was compact; concise - not a single note wasted.

    Does the same hold for the English string quartet? Foulds, actually wrote well more than 7 string quartets, although most are extant. As a dual national, his insights into the culture of the motherland as a native, and as an onlooker from a colonial position, may have contributed to his keen insights. Thus the 'Quartetto Intimo' with its highly wrought psychological intensity. I don't have any objections to the others - they are all in the 'light music' category, a bit like Doris Day (except that I'd never listen to her). Perhaps, Britten, whose string quartets and solo cello suites are a tedious wading experience is the only one I would steer clear of and his work does not stand out in string quartet literature when I think of the English string quartet. Even Beethoven is more engaging than the psychologically bereft works from the English composers. Their techniques, when not folk-influenced (like Moeran or Ireland), are hardly possessed of the same calibre or ingenuity which we see in Soviet string quartets (the contrapuntal techniques of Taneyev, or the ingenuity of Shostakovich), nor the serialism of the Viennese school, nor the micro-inflections of neo-baroque music like Poland's Szymanski. They are there: the British string quartets are there to wade through. Just like a Jane Austen novel.

    When I think of English string quartets, Moeran and Foulds stand out for me. Moeran himself, had regional influences (and a regional flavour) to his music; similarly, Foulds is more colonial English, dare I say, even 'Parisian', in the best of the Parisian traditions. I'd rather have Moeran or Foulds any day, however when blessed with a beautiful recording of Elgar or Williams' string quartet (you know the one) by the Aeolian String Quartet, the beauty of their pastoral work and the shining subtlety really graces the lounge and space where their music come alive for me.


    Elgar's, only one quartet, not enough to see the consistency (Head_case's string quartet cycle dogma).
    Sometimes I think we're blessed by Elgar not being able to write more than 1 string quartet. His works have a distinctly pompous and grandiose thread which otherwise interferes with what could be beautiful music for the melancholy minded. Instead, he comes across as parochial and someone overfilled like a Mille Feuille with all kinds of dramatic extravaganzas as if it was a Woolworths last day closing sale marketed as a grand opening.

    The Maggini Quartet are very competent: what's not to like about them. They look like they are attempting to become the first British Encyclopaedists of the string quartet medium. Still, if you have time and want a richer experience of the same quartets, then the Aeolian String Quartet come to you highly recommended; especially their mono recordings (you heard - MONO! Not dud stereo with misplacement of the cello bones in the mix). The Melos Quartet are also superb at what they do.

    On a separate note, the Maggini do a *barely* competent version of Szymanowski's string quartets. I recently had the chance to hear the Royal String Quartet version of the same quartets coupled with the Royczki string quartet. Personally, I found the CD rather dire. They killed the nervous energy of the music and played it at a comatose speed such that I barely recognised the Szymanowski pieces. After hearing it, I was stunned at how review after review seem to appreciate their 'reading' of Szymanowski, however all of these raves, consistently fail to make reference to the finest interpretations available of the Szymanowski quartets: the Carmina Quartet [1990s]; the Varsovia Quartet [1980s]; the Silesian Quartet [1990s] or the Wilanow Quartet [1990s]. We're being impoverished, left with the paucity of the 'modern' readings. On that note - the Aeolian String Quartet coupling of Elgar/Williams on vinyl LP hails from the 1960's. Just absolutely beautiful.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Head_case View Post
    Although I live here, I have never heard a single English string quartet being performed live!

    What indeed is it about UK string quartets.....which makes them so bland and unmemorable hmmmm? Walker Percy, the American southern writer came across this conundrum when looking at the task of assessing classical English literature (i.e. Jane Austen) versus say, French literature (the philosophical novel) by the likes of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Percy deigned that with Austen, there is no psychological import of existential value. The prettiness of the prose and the language, itself renders page upon page, irrelevant. You could skip chapters of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility and find that the protagonist is still so suffocated in dissimulation and emotionally/psychologically asphyxiated. In contrast, the French existential novel, was compact; concise - not a single note wasted.
    You're making huge generalisations (something I come to expect in this forum). And the string quartets looked at in this thread are predictably those from around the first quarter of the 20th century in the main. What about other periods? Better to look at the variety of music than to see it as all the same. And as for literature I prefer poetry anyway.

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    Go on ....enlighten us with some profound English string quartets then

    It's not possible to look at 'the variety of music' when you're considering the string quartet' medium?

    In case you don't know already, my music taste is very narrow (minded). Mostly late 19th century - 20th century and only chamber music. 'Generalisation' isn't the correct term then; the reference point I'm making is too narrow to be considered 'general'. With respect to preferences; the exception is the rule on this forum; therefore it's no surprise that you prefer poetry

    That's all

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    Yeh there can be variety in quartets. You can have classical era quartets, then romantic era, then modernist (from impressionist to more atonal). I suppose recordings cater in particular for this early 20th century period but it is a bit limited and gives only a small range of styles relatively. I don't really keep track of what countries all the composers who's work I have are from, but certainly there will be - for example - more modernist quartets among the many composers of the last century (and some from this century) from the UK.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jurianbai View Post
    So what is it about UK string quartets? Here the composers I listen to for starter.
    You guys have all missed the point, as far as SQ are concerned in England.

    The greatest sets of SQ first performed and first published in England were by Franz Joseph Haydn. Though some may have been composed for continental European commissions, many of Haydn's late SQ were also published in England and performed there; undoubtedly being the earliest virtuosic SQ up to that point in time, in the form that we would normally describe as SQ. Now, dare I speculate that Haydn's works "set the standard", and many English composers would have had a hard task to beat! (Just like Handel set the English standard for oratorios and never since then, with the exception of Haydn's The Creation, have there been any more great English oratorios to beat, or indeed English operas for that matter).

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    There's no doubt that Haydn did receive plenty of encouragement in Britiain to compose some of his greatest works which were very well received there as well. That would suggest there was appreciation of good music there. There should be more focus on British composers of that period as well to see what they did, ignorance of that doesn't mean all the music was bad.

    Also let's keep quiet about this but I just checked and a composer called Richard Ayres is apparently British (I just checked as I don't bother with these details much) and in the 2000s he did 3 pieces for string quartet that sound nearer Bartok in style being quite jagged and disconnected than the pastoralist school style. But we must keep quiet about this because we can't change preconceived stereotypes of course.

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    It would be great to think that everyone misses the point, except those who get it, who get Haydn

    Plenty of love for Haydn (not from here though ) _- just not much for the English
    Most of us who listen to string quartets, don't listen to just anything from the classical; the baroque; the romantic; the neoclassical; the impressionist, or the serialist tendencies. If you spend enough time loving specialist music, you develop a specific preference, rather than thinking it is 'all awesome' or 'all terrible'.

    Ayres is the Vermeulen Prize winner. I came to know him through that awful string quartet which completed the George Antheils (The Mondriaan Quartet). Antheils is better known for his reputation than the calibre of his own music sadly. Jurianbai will also know the Mondriaan Quartet by owning the same awful CD which would be no loss, if it was catapulted into outer space rather than spun on a CD player. To my ears, Ayres sounds derivative: he is still young and has not formed a musical language of his own, with his own idioms and distinctiveness, perhaps no doubt, why you have to reference a monolithic Hungarian contributor to the string quartet medium, to describe Ayres' music. His three little ditties for string quartet, don't cut the mustard compared to Pawel Szymanski's 'Three Pieces for string Quartet' or even 'Five Pieces for String Quartet'. Szymanski transforms music with a language of his own, holding a direct lineage to the baroque and fugual tradition. From this generation, work on the string quartet medium by the American composer, Garland, whose string quartet No.1 derives from the oriental poem 'Tao Chien', fused in an American and modern experimental way.

    Whether Ayres attains the proficiency of Garland or Szymanski depends on whether he can muster up his first proper string quartet at all. He's got time and his fledgling efforts are appreciated, particularly since it would be awful if foreigners considered the only interesting musical export from the British Isles hung on four coccinellidae.

    Try again
    Last edited by Head_case; May-25-2010 at 06:59.

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