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Full marks to Dutton!,
This review is from: Scott - String Quartets 1, 2 & 4 (Audio CD)
In the decade before the First World War Cyril Scott was the first English composer since Dunstable in the fifteenth century to gain a reputation on the continent for being at the forefront of musical progress. The trouble with this is that what appears bold and original to one generation sounds old hat to the next, particularly in a century of such rapidly changing fashions as the one just ended. As early as the 1930s Scott, with his revelling in impressionist harmony, was written off as a back number, and attempts since then to revive interest in his music have been spasmodic and ineffective. The present recording deserves, however, some measure of success. In the quality and representativeness of the works chosen, and in assurance of performance, this is the most important Scott recording since the Lyrita LPs of his piano concertos with John Ogdon and the LPO back in the 1970s. It also complements nicely the earlier Dutton CD of his chamber music, which included the Piano Quartet of 1899 and the Piano Quintet of 1911/2: the three quartets on this new disc date to 1918, 1948-51, and 1965.
The First Quartet, written at the height of Scott's fame, shows an advance over the Quintet in coherence of form, lightness of touch, and variety of harmony. The delightful Scherzo is a straight imitation of Grainger, while in the other movements the dominant influence is Ravel; the harmony, however, remains distinctive in its exotic preciosity. The writing often makes unreasonable demands on the players (more so than in the later quartets); the Archaeus Quartet cope with impressive bravura, and one can scarcely blame them for not quite achieving in the coda of the final movement the serenity that Scott intended.
The Second Quartet, written in the time of Scott's almost complete neglect, is both more individual and more deeply felt; indeed, it is my favourite among all the works of Scott that I have heard or played. To the virtues it shares with the earlier quartet (such as clear and effective contrasts between the various movements), the harmony has an expressiveness that was quite new in Scott, a bittersweet quality, at times almost astringent, which gives a welcome tension, even poignancy, to the typically vigorous rhythm of the faster sections. The return in the final movement of material from the other movements was a favourite formal device of Scott's, and was often rather crudely crafted; here, however, it is particularly appropriate, in view of the nostalgic wistfulness that pervades the work as a whole.
Harmonic complexity developed apace in Scott's final years, attaining an almost hermetic character in the Fourth Quartet (his last major work), which, unfortunately, is also an extreme example of the composer's characteristic weaknesses - monotony of texture and a lack of counterpoint. The decision to include this quartet rather than the Third must have been a difficult one: the Third is the better work of the two, but presents a less pronounced contrast to the Second. Why could not both have been included? This would have involved running over into a second CD, but Conifer solved an identical problem very satisfactorily in its recording of the four Rubbra quartets by issuing a set of two short CDs at the price of one.
The accompanying notes include perceptive comment on Scott from Sir Thomas Armstrong (Principal of the Royal Academy of Music during Scott's later years): 'Even if his music has finally to be classed a failure, it has fire and intellectual vivacity, and was the expression of an extraordinary temperament.' One could characterize the music and the temperament behind it as combining fin-de-siècle preciosity with lively enthusiasm, and a passion for the exotic with an underlying emotional detachment. Scott's defects cannot be ignored: he finished his formal musical studies at the much too early age of nineteen, and never made up the deficit; he was also utterly unself-critical and could slip into self-parody. Nevertheless his work reveals a spiritual aristocrat, and constitutes one of the more fascinating byways of the English musical renaissance.