Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Household Music: Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes for string quartet
Ina Boyle (1889-1967)
String Quartet in E minor
John Ireland (1879-1962)
The Holy Boy
E J Moeran (1894-1950)
String Quartet No.2 in E flat Op. Posth
rec. 2022, St Silas Church, London
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
RUBICON RCD1098 
Here is a fresh and enterprising programme from the Piatti Quartet. I had best admit from the start that I had not previously heard any of the music on this disc other than the well-known Ireland piece. Not that surprising in the case of a world premiere recording of the lovely E minor quartet by Irish composer Ina Boyle but getting to know Moeran’s engaging quartet No.2 reminded me that I really must expand my knowledge of his output.
The recording begins with yet another Vaughan Williams rarity and another veritable VW discovery – even after being completely spoilt in this regard by the 150th anniversary year how many more delights are there yet to be unearthed?
The present work derives from a drive by the composer during the Second World War to write music for “practical performances by amateurs” to quote the liner notes by Lewis Foreman. Writers of notes for CDs seldom get the credit they deserve so I am happy to say that those for this release are exemplary. Back to the Vaughan Williams, Foreman tells me they were scored for quartet but with the intention that other instruments could be added or subtracted as performance conditions required. It consists of three movements all based on Welsh hymn tunes.
That description might suggest some primitive arrangements dashed off in a wholly functional manner but what we get is the mature VW at his best. My mind went to the spirit of the roughly contemporary Fifth Symphony but also the Fantasia and slow movement of the later and much underrated Eighth Symphony.
Ina Boyle’s music is attracting increasing attention as part of a wider reassessment of the role of women composers. In style her music bears the fingerprints of her teacher, Vaughan Williams but with a characteristic strain of melancholy deriving from Irish traditional music. Her quartet in E minor dates from 1934 when I would imagine it was already sounding out of date next to the onward stampede of modernism. Freed of such dogmatic concerns, modern listeners can now enjoy it for what is – a beautifully written, rather haunting piece of quartet writing. The long limbed opening theme of the Adagio points to Boyle as an accomplished song writer but it is the atmosphere of the piece, redolent of early Yeats, that makes the piece such an exciting discovery. The Piatti Quartet clearly share my feelings for it as their performance exudes passion and love for the music.
Almost all the same points might be made about the rather better known second quartet of Moeran. English born but of Anglo Irish stock, Moeran’s music is often, as here, infused with the atmosphere and folk music of Ireland. The piece is more playful and dance like than the grander, sadder mood of the Boyle quartet but they make great companions presided over by the benign genius of VW.
John Ireland’s The Holy Boy, originally written for piano but here given in a 1941 version for string quartet, will be familiar from albums of Christmas music and its placid mood fits beautifully with the pastoral, folk inflected tone of the rest of this diverting collection.
As for performances, the Piatti Quartet play with open affection and a real grasp of the depths that lie beneath these deceptively simple scores. They are beautifully recorded too. Such is the nature of the Vaughan Williams that of the alternative versions I have found one is played by a Hungarian string quartet supplemented by an oboe and the other finds Richard Hickox using a string orchestra. Neither get close to affecting yearning of the Piattis. In the Moeran, I preferred their more authentically Irish manner in the lively jig like sections of the finale to the Maggini Quartet’s 1997 account on Naxos even if the older account features a more vividly characterised first movement. I expect the programme will be the main selling point of this new recording and it is more than worth getting for the Boyle alone.
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