Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2003 and the recording is still available.

John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948)
String Quartets Volume 2
String Quartet No. 3 (1901)
String Quartet No. 6 Biscay (1913)
String Quartet No. 13 (1928)
Chilingirian Quartet
rec. 2001, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, UK
Chandos CHAN10084 [59]

Chandos’s devotion to McEwen’s music continues in its exploratory way with the second volume of the String Quartets. It was Joseph Holbrooke who said of McEwen in 1925 “his heart was in chamber music…and there are, I believe, eight splendid quartets for strings.” McEwen lived to write many more of course and the implication behind Holbrooke’s comment – that they weren’t played – was not entirely true even then. One of my few complaints about this production is that these are claimed authoritatively to be premiere recordings. Well, yes and no. Two movements of possibly McEwen’s most popular Quartet, No 6 Biscay, were recorded by the dedicatees and first performers, the London String Quartet, as long ago as 1916, the year after the premiere. Very slightly abridged, Columbia L1116 shows the commitment to contemporary British chamber works demonstrated by some recording companies at the time.

Given that most will be unfamiliar with that elderly disc, these are effectively three new quartets to digest. Sensibly Chandos gives us an early, a middle and a middle-late work (in the first volume we had No. 4 of 1905, No. 7 written in 1916 and No. 16 dating from 1936, and the late Fantasia). The Third Quartet (1901) is in three movements and establishes an intriguing, though not as yet wholly individualised, approach to the medium. The opening movement carries the main weight of the argument; an auburn and chromatic opening adagio leading to a quasi-fugal section is accompanied by some noble and alert writing. There’s a confident dancing vitality to the Allegro section, which manages to take in broadenings of tempo and elasticities of subject matter. The root is Haydn; the execution that of a composer alert to contemporary European developments though hardly in the avant-garde. The material reflects upon itself as it winds down and the cello has a noteworthy melody, elegiac and elevated, before McEwen summons up the slowing movement into an ending of pleasurable animation. The Allegretto second movement is slighter in conception with a March profile animated by what Levon Chilingirian calls in his notes a “burlesque character.” Oddly, parts of it put me in mind of Elgar’s 1900-01 Cockaigne. The Presto finale has a dash of his native Scottish muse, folksy (but not too folksy) and lyrical with an affectionate drive and very well aerated.

Written in 1913 the Biscay Quartet wasn’t published until 1916. In the interim the London Quartet had given its premiere and they were to prove strong supporters of McEwen, as was their first violinist, Albert Sammons, who later performed a number of the Violin Sonatas throughout the 1920s. This is a delightful work, again in three (named) movements, colourful, rhythmically animated, saturated in nature and idiomatically written. It was composed when McEwen was living on Cap Ferret in the South of France. The first movement, Le Phare (The Lighthouse) certainly announces his impressionistic affiliations; there’s an agitated opening, shimmering episodes and a virtuosic part for the first violin; the contrasting sections have a sturdy sobriety to them that lowers the temperature effectively. In fact there’s tremolando freshness to much of this movement, with enough incipient tension to keep the musical argument and structure tight and effective. The second movement is called Les Dunes and it’s deeply expressive in its impressionistic wash. The viola takes centre stage in its evocative solo with accompanying drone bass – played here by Asdis Valdimarsdottir with plangent depth – before the first violin takes up the honours; don’t overlook the ingenious accompaniment to the fiddle here. McEwen summons up limitless horizons and vistas of immense stillness. In Cobbett’s Cyclopaedic Survey of Chamber Music Spencer Dyke – another one of McEwen’s leading exponents whose eponymous Quartet also recorded his music in the 1920s – remarks that La Racleuse, the title of the last movement, recalls the free and happy life of the oyster-gatherers on the oyster beds. Levon Chilingirian writes in the booklet that racler means to scrape and there’s certainly a folksy old melody for the first violin. I paced up and down for a while wondering what it reminded me of and then I realised – William Kroll’s Banjo and Fiddle of 1940, a full twenty five years avant la lettre. The rhythm is excellent and the Chilingirians have a real cocksure, ebullient swagger – and do well in the contrasting Allegretto section as well. McEwen draws on more tremolando writing here as well as some spirited Dvořákian influenced freedom as he drives towards the charming, throwaway ending. Even I have to admit it, the Chilingirians really do bring life and joyous affirmation to this movement that rather puts in the shade the London Quartet’s more approximate effort.

Finally to the 1928 Thirteenth. In four conventional sounding movements this has a concentrated assurance and depth that announce it immediately as a powerful work. There is a sense of insecurity and complex working out in the opening moderato that is only resolved by the increasing confidence and, indeed, effulgence of the writing, which, at the movement’s climax, has become positively serene. A scherzo follows that is rather vocal in impress, quite light, with plentiful ostinati and strong dance rhythms. The slow movement is expressive and the cello recitatives add their own burden to the movement, as does the viola solo. The tremolando effects generate a sense of expectation and flux, one that successfully resolves by the end of the movement. A bustling, galvanizing finale presents us with perky little tunes and a slither of impressionistic gauze as well; veil-like moments full of chromatic suggestion. McEwen plays with our expectations as to exactly where the weight and emotive tension will fall – and manages to confound them as well – and he slows down to an affirmatory but quietly introspective conclusion.

Sound quality at Snape Maltings is first class; generosity of acoustic without over burnished bloom or spread. Levon Chilingirian’s notes are apposite and helpful and this latest disc – as if you can’t tell – gets a most enthusiastic welcome.

Jonathan Woolf

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