Music Reviews

Villiers Quartet

String Quartets by Frederick Delius and Ethel Smyth

String Quartets by Frederick Delius and Ethel Smyth2

Naxos 8.574376

This recording captures quartets written in a roughly twenty-year period by two revered English composers. Roughly contemporary with each other Delius and Smyth were perhaps the ‘non-mainstream’ element in English music of that time (if you consider Elgar to be mainstream, that is).

Smyth continued to challenge many ‘mainstream’ preconceptions during her lifetime, and is perhaps most famous (or notorious) for her avid support of the suffragette movement. Challenging conventional social norms and being a woman composer in Britain’ at that time was also forcing a degree of gender politic reassessment in British music.

Her The March of Women became the rallying cry of the suffragettes, but despite that did receive some of the critical acclaim she deserved in later life, though it was by no means recognition enough. Her output was prolific and included 6 operas, the most famous of which is probably The Wreckers.

The string quartet, despite ten years being between the second and third movements, and another two years before the fourth, is a remarkably consistent and complete work. There’s no inkling in the writing about the time lag. The four movements (Allegretto Lirico, Scherzo, Andante, and Finale) are remarkably varied yet retain a coherence which is rather surprising. The Finale contains a good deal of rhythmic interplay, and a ‘hiccup’ In the development section with an ominous tremolando and a persistent ostinato figure but which finishes with a bold and brusque flourish.

Delius was born of German parents in Bradford. Intending to enter the family firm Delius’ musical prowess was noticed by Grieg, who persuaded Delius’ parents to send him to Leipzig to the Conservatoire. In 1888 Delius heard the Brodsky Quartet play Grieg’s Quartet in G minor, this was probably the stimulus he needed to attempt one of his own. He sent the score to his friend Sinding in Norway, but it was returned unplayed. The rejection crushed Delius and he abandoned the work.

While the score for the later two movements remained safe, the first two movements’ manuscript was lost. However, in 2018 they reappeared at an auction, and after some 80 years or more were reunited with the last two. The Villiers Quartet then played the whole quartet in its original form in a livestream broadcast from Oxford on 8th October 2020. It’s fitting that the Villiers quartet should also have made the first recording of the quartet in its original form.

The movements are an ambitious opening Allegro (which has evocations of a tone-poem at its heart), Scherzo(like a light fairy-dance), the third movement opens solemnly before invoking an intermezzo and a mazurka followed by a stern Finale. The Villiers’ playing is beautifully captured in a very evenly-lit recording. The soundstage is not too close, but you’re evidently not far from the performers. All in all a rather enjoyable disc, and not one to be overlooked.

Chris Beeching

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