These are old friends in two senses. These recordings were first issued by Metier in 1992. With that label now under the wing of The Divine Art – an increasingly perceptive reputation in the land – the disc has been re-released.
As a group of works they have been coupled before. In the mid-1970s Lyrita Recorded Edition LP SRCS 68 had them played by the Richards Piano Quartet (Bernard Roberts (piano), Nona Liddell (violin), Jean Stewart (viola), Bernard Richards (cello)) with Thea King (clarinet). The effect was revelatory. Few of us knew the works before then although the Piano Quartet had been broadcast as part of an ambitious early-1970s BBC Radio 3 series called England’s Green and Pleasant Land. Christopher Palmer’s little Novello book on Howells was also to instil curiosity and later enthusiasm. This music – of or just after the Great War – was the work of a pastoral master who had shaken off the Stanford-Brahmsian dust. When vinyl died to all practical intents and purposes circa 1986 the Lyrita LP disappeared. It later became a prohibitively high value item on the internet. It was reissued only this month (November 2007) as Lyrita SRCD.245. With a playing time of 53.20 there’s very little in it between the two discs in terms of sheer timings.
The Piano Quartet was written in the depths of the Great War. This perhaps accounts for the terrific urgency and even desperation of Howells’ writing in the Allegro Moderato first movement at 4:03. The music is deeply romantic and warmly cocooned, these being qualities favoured and accentuated by the acoustic. Folksong is an integral part of the fabric of this writing and one can easily feel the plangent Lento as predictive of later works by Moeran and even Finzi. The ecstatically complex exuberance of the Allegro molto plays the boundaries between bell-tones, the caress of summer zephyrs and chilly intimations of Housman’s ‘steady drummer’. The other element is folk dance with shades of Grainger and even Stravinsky. It’s all wonderfully handled by the Lyric Quartet players and Andrew West. Individual players eloquently cut through the textures just as the score requires.
The Piano Quartet plays for about half an hour while the other two pieces time out at barely 13 minutes each. The Phantasy String Quartet, like the Rhapsodic Quintet, is in a single movement. It is done with wonderful gravity and speaks of nature spirituality yet without John Ireland’s mystery. It is music caught up in the glories of landscape but then patters along singing a long-lined melody of strolling and sun-dappled confidence. The Rhapsodic Quintet seems a further unbuttoning of classical restraints. While the Phantasy Quartet is a step away from the shreds of formality in the Piano Quartet the Rhapsodic Quintet takes that next step into freedom. The music sweeps along – a spontaneous response to the moment. A haunted but not at all macabre second half rises to a new lyrical density but then fades back to an epilogue of lump-in–the-throat meditative beauty. It’s just a small step away from Zemlinsky’s quartets in similar mood.
The notes are by Paul Spicer who has done so much for Finzi and Howells amongst many others. The monochrome presentation of the booklet and the uncredited line drawing are all attractive and apposite. The only thing that tells against the disc, and then only by a shading, is the rather warmly bathed acoustic. I would have wished for a shade more impact but then I would have had to sacrifice the mystery so lovingly conveyed. I hope to be able to compare the Lyrita disc before too long.