Salzedo String Quartets Dutton CDLX7113

Déjà Review: this review was first published in March 2002 and the recording is still available.

Leonard Salzedo (1921-2000)
String Quartet No 2, Op 3 (1942-43, revised 1995)
Sonata for Violin and Viola, Op 132 (1995)
String Quartet No 7 ‘Cuatro voces ladinas’, Op 76 (1969)
Archæus Quartet
rec. 2001, Henry Wood Hall, London. DDD
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7113 [62]

A brief glance through Paul Conway’s invaluable biography of Leonard Salzedo on Musicweb reveals that Salzedo was a composer who maintained a prolific rate of output until the last years of his life. Indeed, a catalogue numbering some 143 works with opus numbers together with numerous unnumbered works and around eighteen film scores is remarkable. Especially for a man who for most of his life had a ‘full-time’ job either as a violinist, or, later on, as music director of Ballet Rambert and Scottish Ballet amongst others. As a violinist, Salzedo spent three years with the London Philharmonic Orchestra between 1947 and 1950 (one Malcolm Arnold was the first trumpet player at the time) after which he joined the Royal Philharmonic, subsequently becoming Beecham’s assistant. Beecham was obviously grateful for the young composer’s efforts, as he conducted the premiere of Salzedo’s Symphony No. 1 (1952) as well as a number of other works, including the highly successful ballet The Witch Boy.

That said, it is sad to see so many deserving works in Salzedo’s catalogue that have received few, if any, performances. There are exceptions, of course, amongst them the score for the Hammer film The Revenge of Frankenstein, the aforementioned ballet, The Witch Boy, which received over a thousand performances. Also, the fanfare from the Divertimento for three trumpets and three trombones, used for many years as the theme to Open University programmes on BBC television. Amongst the unperformed works are the late Requiem Without Voices for large orchestra of 1989, something of a magnum opus at around sixty minutes. Even the Symphony No 2 of 1954 had to wait thirty-three years for its first performance in 1987.

Quite why this should be I find difficult to comprehend, for Salzedo was an immensely practical composer with an original voice (partly emanating from his Spanish Jewish ancestry) and a flair for dynamic scoring and rhythmic ingenuity. What is equally difficult to comprehend is that so little of his music has been committed to disc. Although The Witch Boy and another ballet score, Divertimento Espagnol were issued on the Classics for Pleasure label many years ago, these have long since been deleted. This new disc is therefore very welcome and showcases two works from what I suspect may be an exceptionally fine ten-quartet cycle.

Salzedo’s first string quartet of 1942, his opus 1, won him the Cobbett prize for composition whilst still a student at the Royal College of Music and he began work on the second quartet almost immediately, completing it in 1943. It underwent two subsequent revisions, one in 1944 and another much later in 1995 although as Rodney Newton points out in his booklet note, the extent of the later revision is not known. What is clear is that this is a remarkably assured and impressively characteristic work for a twenty one-year-old student. The Allegro Moderato opening movement is restless throughout, the opening motif providing the material from which the whole movement is constructed. Both harmonically and melodically this already sounds like Salzedo, whilst the skill of the string writing, which permeates all of these works, is in evidence from the outset. A wistful second movement minuet leads into a mysteriously haunting Andante before the final Allegro blazes into life. The second subject here is an interesting reminder of Salzedo’s many apparent references to Sephardic chant and his Spanish heritage, the movement finally resolving to a calm and peaceful conclusion.

The seventh quartet of 1969 is another of those works that fell victim to a belated premiere, not receiving its first performance until some twenty-five years after its completion (a scheduled first performance in 1971 was postponed and never reinstated). Conceived as a tribute to the composer’s father, in spite of the fact that he spoke out publicly about his lack of affection for his son’s music. The work draws heavily on the conflict between the father’s self-declared atheism and his inability to fully disassociate himself with his Jewish background. This conflict asserts itself immediately in the opening movement (Moderato), within which Salzedo draws on an Arabic mode that has become associated with the music of Spain. As the composer points out in his own introduction to the piece, the movement is predominantly contemplative in nature. However, the intensity of the emotional climax reached towards its close is in many ways the pivotal point of the whole work. A relatively brief waltz-like second movement, Allegro vivace, by turns delicate and motorically driving, precedes the Lento slow movement. Here Salzedo actually quotes an old Sephardic melody reminiscent of those played by his father, who was a keen amateur string player. Heard first on the cello, the melody is constantly haunted by ghostly murmurings from the other instruments in the background and leaves a truly spine tingling impression. Arthur Butterworth mentioned to me during a recent interview that Salzedo’s use of moto perpetuo had been a significant influence on his own work. It had led to him working out a form of perpetual motion in his own music based on a cyclic rotation of the chromatic scale. Although the final Allegro of this quartet does not adhere to a strict moto perpetuo tempo, its rhythmic development drives forward in exhilarating fashion. This is a fine example of the sheer impetus Salzedo was able to generate in his music, bringing the work to a dynamic, breathless finale.

Judging by these performances, the Archæus Quartet are magnificent advocates of Salzedo’s work, an opinion obviously shared by the composer himself. It was in response to their premiere of his seventh quartet that he wrote his final three quartets, all specifically for the Archæus. The Sonata for Violin and Viola was also written for the first violin and viola players of the Archæus, Ann Hooley and Elizabeth Turnbull. Although not as strong a work emotionally and structurally as the seventh quartet, Salzedo creates some startlingly rich textures, so much so that I frequently found myself marvelling at the fact that I was listening to only two players. Once again, the final driving Allegro vivo combines thrilling rhythmic virtuosity with considerable technical demands on the players. Ann Hooley and Elizabeth Turnbull have the measure of it all and turn in an intrepid performance.

In releasing this disc, Mike Dutton and his team have not only brought a name into the limelight that deserves greater recognition. They have also revealed a ten quartet cycle that on the evidence of the seventh, at least, must rank alongside the likes of Elizabeth Maconchy and Daniel Jones as a major achievement in the genre. The difference of course is that the cycles of both of these composers have been recorded in their entirety. Rodney Newton hints that there may be other discs of Salzedo’s music in the offing. I certainly hope so but in the meantime will content myself with the current issue. This disc will give me pleasure for a long time to come and will no doubt be there as one my discs of 2002, come the end of the year.

Christopher Thomas

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Archæus Quartet
Ann Hooley and Bridget Davey (violins)
Elizabeth Turnbull (viola), Martin Thomas (cello)