GRAHAM WHETTAM – String Quartets Nos. 1 and 4

Graham Whettam [1927-2007] was a twentieth century British composer who wrote four string quartets between 1960 and 2007. He also revised his second SQ in 1997, titling it Hymnos. Two quartets are available on CD, Nos. 1 and 4.

String Quartet No. 1 is in three movements. It opens with a solo cello phrase which is answered by the violins. This process is repeated. The next cello entry brings the violins with it and a longing solo violin melody ensues. The ensemble respond with a melancholy passage with both the cello and violin being prominent at different times. Now a rhythmic pizzicato takes over. There is a brief ensemble section and the pizzicato returns. The ensemble quickly take over and we have a fidgety passage as the various instruments clash repeatedly. Out of this comes a sustained cello line; the violins meander in but the cello leads the melody. The cello is particularly prominent and reaches into its high register where it is joined by a searing violin line, also in the high register. This line concludes the movement.

The next movement opens with a strong flourish, and is very energetic. The violins dance as the viola and cello set up a rhythmic motif.  There is pizzicato in this passage as well. An energised solo cello line is joined by the violins, but a brief pause drops the tempo and the intensity back to nothing. The cello stays prominent, and this is an introspective passage with the violins going with long melodic lines. An aura of melancholy is achieved as one violin plays long phrases, while the second wanders into a very high register, with a sparse feeling. The intensity now increases and a measured rhythmic tempo allows the violins to exchange phrases. Pizzicato returns, but the violins persist with energetic melodies. The movement ends with a strong rhythmic flourish.

The third movement, marked adagietto, begins with a very moving solo violin, until the cello enters with a similar feeling in support. This violin and cello passage lasts for some time and moves through several different moods. A pizzicato interlude is followed by a section featuring just two violins; very sparse but played with great expression. The mood gradually dissipates and a lone violin in the high register takes us to the end.

The fourth string quartet is in four movements and is much more modern than the first. The start is a series of rhythmic thrusts moving into intermittent cello lines, with violins hovering in the background. The ensemble finally enter, but the cello dominates proceedings. As the end approaches, it’s all about the cello. Finally the violins have something to add, but the cello persists to the end.

There is no break after the first movement, and the cello continues as it opens the second movement; not for long however. A slightly chaotic mood is established and the cello spars with the violins. A pizzicato interlude does nothing to change the emotional atmosphere. The cello and violins carry on their dialogue until the intensity finally drops back. Again the cello dominates with subtle violin interjections. We now return to the opening thrusts from the first movement to conclude.

The third movement features a solo cello opening, before moving into a chaotic feeling. The cello is again prominent; this seems to be a feature of Whettam’s style. The music now moves into introspection, which also appears to be familiar territory for the composer. An abstract, lamenting passage gradually builds, and eventually moves into a chaotic mood, with seemingly random musical interjections. This finally gives way to a feeling of peace, with all instruments contributing melodic lines. It finishes with the violin in a high register; very wispy.

The final movement features a skittish opening.  The ensemble drift with no noticeable connection with each other. Slowly a violin dialogue appears. Now the cello comes into prominence, and violins move to the high register where they play in a rather convoluted manner. Finally we have a moment of peace as a violin creates a high-pitched melody, with the cello making occasional statements. The work closes with a very quiet violin playing a handful of random notes.

These two quartets have a sense of modern abstraction about them but they never become noisy or aggressive. I feel a lot of entropy here and I don’t believe they resemble any composer I have heard recently.

This CD, by the Carducci Quartet, on the Carducci Classic label also features an evocative Oboe Quartet. There is a long oboe solo introduction and various passages with and without strings – sometimes it is just strings. It falls somewhere between the first and fourth quartets in style, with several introspective interludes. It is a fine work.

The disc is available from Amazon US and UK.

It can be found on Spotify and both quartets are on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability:  Two quality modern works. The Oboe Quartet is a bonus.


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