ALAN RAWSTHORNE – String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2

British composer Alan Rawsthorne [1905-1971] wrote three published string quartets and an unpublished work, which has fortunately found its way into the repertoire. The composer has a distinctive style, which is modern for its time.

The first quartet, composed in 1939, is in one movement. It is titled Theme and Variations, and is quite brief. It commences with a typically British Modern sound from that period, with a gently, mildly atonal passage; this evokes an eerie feeling. It progresses rather quickly into some rapid violin phrases, with the two violins leading the way into some animated conversations. Now the tempo is replaced by a quiet, sparse section, which returns to the previous atonal character. The music is very wispy, filled with short pauses. Suddenly things become lively and the violins lead the piece into a busy, abstract mood. There are some harmonic and rhythmic punctuations which support the two violins for a time.

Abruptly, the intensity drops and a dirge-like passage ensues. The violins express minimal phrases at first, and then they gradually move into a minimally more expansive mood. Even this slight increase in intensity does not last, but dissolves back almost into a stasis. Eventually we have movement, and melody. Both violins converse while the cello supplies an appropriate harmonic underpinning. This is about as animated as this piece has become, with violins spinning out discrete, atonal phrases. Finally, nearing the end, there is a flurry of atonal activity featuring the two violins. They briefly pick up on a motif with the cello and continue until an extremely loud flourish finishes the quartet. This is a very introspective work, filled with thought provoking, atonal soundscapes.

The second quartet was written in 1954, and is in four movements. The opening features an atonal fanfare, which quickly leads into an intense melodic section. Again, this is the Modernity of its time. There is some eventually some melodic development from the violins, which I don’t believe is a significant feature of this composer’s style. A brief, quiet section, featuring a lamenting first violin, leads straight into a melodically chaotic passage. The cello makes some significant statements which propel the violins forward. The final passage is a lone violin which peters out.

The second movement is more of the same really; atonal melodies carried by the ensemble. Having said that, the next passage evokes an introspective, peaceful soundscape. A brief, measured atonal frolic gives way to another satisfying introspective mood. The cello draws out long lines that complement the sparsity of the violins, which slowly fade to the end.

The third movement has a viola playing a rhythmic motif as the violins express quiet, atonal melodies. The motif persists and now it is only one violin, together with sporadic cello statements. A pastoral feeling comes over the work, but it is tainted by the atonality of the violins. This is very peaceful. A pause leads us back to the beginning motif and the violins are just so sparse. A lonely violin carries the music to a conclusion.

The opening of the final movement fits with the preceding moods; very quiet violins with the occasional cello presence. Again, atonality prevails, but it is very measured. A violin motif suggests a tempo, which, after a time, is taken up by the ensemble. This is a most enchanting passage, as the violins dance over and around the viola and cello. It slowly retreats to a lone violin, way up in the high register, which is joined by the second violin. The cello repeats a familiar phrase a number of times and it’s all over.

This is very melancholic music. I happen to like the European style from 1900-1950, and these quartets fit squarely into that genre. They  may not suit everyone’s taste.

The review CD, titled Rawsthorne: Four String Quartets, by The Flesch Quartet, includes the unpublished work. There is also a version on Naxos, which appears to contain said work, but it has many short movements, so I am not sure if it is the same music. This version also presents the first quartet as a number of short movements. Not sure what’s going on there. Both versions are available on Naxos US and UK, and also on Spotify. The first three quartets are on YouTube.

Listenability: Melancholy and mildly atonal. You would have to be in the mood for this one.

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