British composer Frederick Theodore Albert Delius [1862-1934] was a giant of British musical circles at the end of the nineteenth century. He wrote one string quartet, in 1916.
The work opens in a wonderfully lilting passage with attractive violin melodies intertwining. A pizzicato relief returns to the opening feeling. This is very luxuriant music. Another pizzicato interlude leads the violins to follow the viola. The music surges now, and the ensemble are as one as they move into a persistent phrase. The intensity drops, with hints of that phrase returning. A recapitulation of the opening melody follows, but it is brief, soon moving into variations. The melodies are less expansive now and a brief pause brings the music back to life. The sound is quite vigorous and the violins rise above the ensemble with much energy. A brief, joyful violin statement leads to a sedate conclusion to the movement.
The second movement is brief and features a dominant violin at tempo. There are episodes of call and response until the violin again takes charge. The viola has a melodic section to express itself until it is absorbed back into the ensemble. The melodies just seem so British. Now the first violin leads another call and response before finishing on a bright motif.
The next movement, titled Late Swallows by Delius, is the longest in the work. It is slow, but still optimistic. The cello echoes the violin’s opening melody and the ensemble work this melody through a set of variations, which are very attractive. Now, a hint of sadness is revealed, even though the previous melody is still being developed. There is a minor tonality at work here. A brief pause introduces a new feeling which is very sparse and features a recurring melody, delicately harmonised by the ensemble. The sparsity leads to a deep, slightly lamenting feeling, which continues for some time. A solo violin wafts over a quiet ensemble to conclude the section. What follows is even more delicate, not much can be heard but for the violin. Now the status quo is resumed as violin and ensemble combine for a short statement. We are still in a lament, however, and the cello has some statements to make. The music becomes measured again, it is very precious. The end comes on a sustained, faded violin tone.
The final movement opens with some rhythmic chords, but soon drops into a melodic passage. A brisk tempo ensues and melody gives way to rhythm for a time. The previous, scant melody resumes and there is much rhythmic variation. Now the violin takes its rightful place and leads the ensemble into a considered mood for a time. The earlier brisk tempo returns, the cello is particularly busy. As the end approaches, there are some strong chordal phrases and the work concludes.
Delius being British, I went straight to Amazon UK and found over one hundred versions, mostly very reasonably priced. My review copy was the Brodsky Quartet, coupled with Edward Elgar’s String Quartet. There are several versions, including the Brodskys on Spotify, and YouTube. If you wanted to hear it played by the British Fitzwilliam Quartet, it’s here on Earsense.
Listenability: A charming Late Romantic work.