BUXTON ORR – The Painter – String Quartet No. 1

Scottish composer Buxton Orr [1924-1997] wrote two string quartets.

A few points about Orr. He writes music that has a peaceful, often atonal background, with constantly occurring melodies. I like to think of him as an expressionist painter. He sets up an abstract background and then applies paint, a dash here, a couple of brush-strokes there and moves on. Furthermore, he seems to have been influenced in some ways by the works of Bela Bartok and Dmitri Shostakovich.

I am going to discuss his first string quartet, titled Refrains IV. It’s unusual in that it consists of nine movements. Five of them are under two minutes and as most of the movements run together I shall not name every movement, just occasionally.

The work begins with a fractured theme, which is repeated with some variation. The piece is already very atonal. A further theme is played and it fades out. Now it becomes a bit more energised. All instruments contribute to the slightly agitated mood and it becomes chaotic for a moment. This is followed by a rare moment of tempo. The instruments produce excited sounds until a violin invokes a peaceful section. This is not to last as an abstract conversation proceeds to the end of this passage.

The third movement is very sparse with a lamenting viola behind the violins. The melody is very static and there is little melodic development. However, the mood is brilliant; just so intangible. Now the cello takes a prominent role, leading into some quite beautiful harmonies. The intensity increases, or is it chaos? It’s subdued in any event. A solo violin enters for a time and it is joined by a very quiet ensemble. Those harmonies return and sparsity predominates.

The next movement opens with a solo cello theme, which is repeated to the accompaniment of the violins. A brief pizzicato section gives way to another violin lament. The pizzicato breaks out into a theme before an ensemble interjection occurs. Now it is time to put on some paint and the composer introduces another abstract section, as the cello scurries around the violins. Again we have a prominent cello theme. The violins move into the middle register and there is a hint of pizzicato. The violins are just so wonderfully expressive!

The seventh movement is a very short violin interlude over a smattering of string sound effects. A hint of a crescendo ensues, the cello scurries again. Now it takes the lead with interjections from the violins. There is forward movement, with the violins leading the charge. This leads to further abstraction as there is atonal conversation. A delicate mood ensues and is only broken briefly by a flourish. There is a brief change of tonality, as if there was any!

The final movement has a very interesting tonal background and the piece becomes quiet very quickly. Occasional notes are played but the quartet is essentially over.

The second quartet consists of four movements and probably is encapsulated even more by the painter analogy. I commend this CD to those who like mild, interesting abstraction. No noises here!

Both of these works, together with some other assorted string chamber works can be found on a single CD, Chamber Music for Strings on Amazon UK. The album is on Spotify and both works can be found on youtube.

Listenability: Beautiful, sparse, thought-provoking music.

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