Classical Music Review: New Releases

William Walton - Piano Quartet, String Quartet. String Quartet in A minor; Piano Quartet in D minor.  Maggini Quartet; Peter Donohoe, piano. Naxos CD 8.554646 (57'38).

William Walton (1902-1983) was a composer who never quite found his niche.  He wrote excellent pieces in all the traditional forms, but the promise of his early compositions never blossomed into a substantive body of work.  He was born too late to be a romantic, but that was where his sympathies lie.  It was inevitable that he would turn to film music.  This is not to discount his achievement, many of his works continue to delight while those of his more innovative contemporaries now sound dated.  The concerti for violin and for viola in particular are marvelous works, and the "entertainment" Façade has never lost its power to charm.  Walton's real fault, if it can be called that, is that he never repeated himself (when he tried to, as in his Symphony No. 2, the results tended to be disappointing).

Outside of an atonal string quartet Walton wrote as a student at Oxford in 1919, the work recorded here, completed in 1947,  is his unique contribution to the genre.  It is a taut work, which subsumes a pervasive melancholy with an at times propulsive rhythmic drive.  The Maggini Quartet have the sense to maintain a steady pulse throughout work, a choice that allows them to avoid an abrupt transition in the first movement when the development breaks into a fugue.  This same sense of rhythmic purpose, subtly applied, keeps the elegiac third movement from descending into sentimentality.

The Piano Quartet (published in 1924) is an earlier work, less emotionally engaging than the String Quartet, but full of élan and inventiveness.  Indeed, the sheer exuberance of the opening two movements, marked Allegramente and Allegro scherzando, mask just how difficult a feat it is to balance the instrumentation in a piano quartet.  As in the String Quartet, the third movement features muted strings led by the viola, but the effect is quite different.  Where the String Quartet sounds resigned, the Piano Quartet's slow movement is a quiet reverie reminiscent of Fauré or Ravel.  The finale is return to the vitality of the beginning.  A raucous first theme places an angular melody in the strings over pounding chords on the piano which dominates the polyphonic and restless movement.

This release continues the Maggini Quartet's exploration of British chamber music for Naxos, following on well-received CD's of music by Frank Bridge, Edward Elgar and E. J. Moeran.  The performances are marvellous and the sound is excellent, crisp without being dry and resonant with being reverberant.

-Tony Gualtieri
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