JOHN McEWEN – String Quartet No. 6

Scottish Late Romantic composer Sir John Blackwood McEwen [1868–1948] wrote seventeen string quartets. There is a definite stylistic progression in these works as the composer moves from an early Romantic approach through to a more complex style that embraced Modernism in his later years. This style change is reflected by an increasing tendency to abstraction, which in no way detracts from the inherent beauty of these works. Wikipedia quotes from several sources on their McEwen page. I found two worth mentioning:

McEwen’s large output of chamber music reveals a creative mind disposed towards more abstract, polyphonic thought.

McEwen’s music synthesizes Scottish (and sometimes French) folk idioms and the Romantic legacy of Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, and the French and Russian schools; Debussy was particularly influential.

The Sixth Quartet, titled Biscay, is apparently inspired by oyster collectors on the French coastline of the Bay of Biscay. Written in 1913, it consists of three named movements.

Le Phare (lighthouse) begins in a delightful mood with a joyous violin wispily drifting over sustained arco harmonies. A cello passage grounds the music, before it rises again, although not to the heights of the introduction. The cello is again strong and leads into a swirling, dramatic passage with a strong violin melodic line that prances over a strong harmonic accompaniment, before moving back into the sustained chordal effect. Now a return to a more placid, but mesmeric soundscape ensues. Nearing the end, the violins fashion an attractive, sparse duet, again with sustained chords, moving on to a fade.

Les Dunes (sand or dunes) opens with a delicate, sombre mood, out of which rises a series of plaintive violin lines – the feeling is very precious. Eventually the music becomes more expansive but still retains a serious nature. A lamenting violin moves this movement forward, accompanied by an ensemble drone. A period of light, romantic melodies drift casually as a violin duet unfolds. These melodies tend to be modal, and very simple, as the end is another fade.

La Racleuse (scraper or skimmer) is simply prancing, seemingly in a French manner. A brisk underlying backing supports a violin conversation with an almost burlesque rhythm. Now the mood changes and a further violin duet unfolds, this time with sparse ensemble interjections. A slight increase in intensity initiates a tempo, before a recapitulation of the opening statement is heard. The resultant energised passage has a charm all of its own and concludes with three soft tones.

This simple, beautiful quartet has to be some of the most sublime music I have heard in quite a while. Being from the composer’s early-to-mid period, it fits into a Romantic form and yet, gives indication of the development of his style, especially when compared with Quartet No. 13, from 1928, which is also on the review CD – this represents a more complex form than the Sixth, and contains two wonderful slow movements.

The CD, McEwen: String Quartets, Vol. 2, by the Chilingirian Quartet is part of a series of three volumes that together contain a significant portion of the composer’s quartet output – all three CDs are available from Amazon US and UK.

All three volumes are also on Spotify, but only a handful of individual movements can be found on YouTube. The first movement of No. 6 is available on earsense.

Listenability: Magnificent and pleasing writing.


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