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CD Review

Hubert Parry

MPR 102

Complete Music for String Quartet

  • String Quartet #1 in G minor
  • String Quartet #2 in C Major
  • String Quartet #3 in G Major
  • Scherzo in C Major
Archaeus Quartet
MPR102 2CDs 81:38
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English composer, teacher and historian of music Charles Hubert Hastings Parry lived from 1848 to 1918 and so was a strong influence on the generations from Elgar (born 1857) to John Ireland (died 1962). And Vaughan Williams, Holst and Bridge also studied with Parry. That composer's style is an amalgam of the very Englishness which is also common to those composers (and finds its apotheosis, perhaps, in Benjamin Britten) with European influences (Wagner and the earlier German Romantics). It is also a style of one steeped in the British choral and organ traditions; though without any kind of pull towards conservatism. Indeed, Parry can be considered a Radical – in politics as well as culture. There is a breadth to Parry, a determination to move forward in the works he composed (his series of six "ethical cantatas" experimented with large-scale choral forms; his choral setting of scenes from Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound" has been identified as marking the inception of the late nineteenth century "English Musical Renaissance"). At the same time, Parry has confidence that, whatever the form, a good composer needs to use their technical abilities and imagination and write what seems right. This he did (in well over 150 works); they deserve to be better known.

This double CD on MPR gathers the four works for String Quartet (Parry also wrote for piano with strings and a string quintet), none of which appears to be in the current catalog. It is perhaps best to listen to the three Quartets (in G minor, C Major and G Major) and the Scherzo in C having put aside any attempt (or temptation) to notice the influences on Parry. That seems to be what the Archaeus Quartet (Ann Hooley, Rosemary Lock, violins; Elizabeth Turnbull, viola; Martin Bradshaw, cello) – which was formed in 1990 and has a special commitment to rarely heard music of the twentieth century – has wisely done. Then, enjoy the music in its own right.

The Archaeus Quartet's playing is adept, eager and full of impetus and control; the players are entirely at home in an idiom that may be elusive at times because of its debt to the German tradition (which Parry regarded as the apex of musical achievement). Parry blends older idioms with new musical ideas without making the result sound too rhetorical or dramatic. At the same time nothing suggests that Parry had found anything spuriously or unnecessarily "novel". The Archaeus Quartet is wholly in sympathy with the music from start to finish. They play such movements as the Andante espressivo from the Second Quartet [CD.1 tr.5], for instance, with sensitivity and at a tempo that draws out the most from the music. Yet their approach has neither maudlin nor undue pity. Then, significantly, they approach this elegant and polished work without real reference to Beethoven – particularly given that it is followed by the fugal scherzo with its hints of chromaticism coupled to rhythmical ebbs and flow.

But there are moments throughout both CDs when the tone (particularly in higher registers) is slightly "off", slightly rough, noticeably lacking in precision of intonation. All other important interpretative aspects of these four satisfying works delight (an excellent balance between refinement and attack being the most prominent). But such technical lapses – momentary and fleeting though they be – cannot help but detract somewhat from our feeling of being in safe hands. Phrasing is always convincing. Dynamics are always pleasing (as when the players navigate the Second Quartet's "Finale" [CD.1 tr.7], for example: not over-strenuous yet full of the necessary tension to take what for most listeners will be an unfamiliar work at first hearing to an appropriate close). But there are many "fruity" moments (the allegro opening of the Third Quartet [CD.2 tr.1] is a good example), when the tuning is unfortunately wayward.

The Second Quartet and the Scherzo benefit from the editorship of Jeremy Dibble, Parry biographer and expert. He also wrote the excellent essay in the accompanying booklet. Each CD is rather short at little over 44 and 37 minutes, or a total of what – at 81 minutes – would have gone just over the physical maximum for one CD. So MPR is to be commended for neither clipping nor asking for a quicker performance. Indeed, the playing demonstrates an admirable sense of variety: the movements and passages which need to be sprightly, picked up and full of urgency are indeed played at a perfect pace. Those which need expansion have it in depth; yet never once drag or look too far inward. Perhaps more importantly, the balance achieved by the Archaeus between these differences in momentum adds to our conviction that the players almost want us to take for granted that this is music of worth, however unfamiliar, and approach it with an open mind.

The acoustic (St Mary the Virgin in Salehurst, East Sussex) is on the dry side; yet it obscures nothing. The many rich low moments for the cello resound yet do not intrude; while the many ensemble passages have admirable clarity. You soon forget the close miking and concentrate on the music itself. The aforementioned booklet is exemplary in both dissecting the quartets thematically and setting them historically and compositionally in the context in which Parry grew and worked. Some of the biographical detail (like Ives, Parry worked in commerce (insurance) for a period) is also fascinating. Such photographs of a young, less "grand" or stately yet just as dapper, Parry with his future wife (whose (encoded) name is written into the end of the Second Quartet) give us an insight to the composer's humanity which the (posed and formal) portraits only hint at. For those familiar only with Parry's choral works, and perhaps only with Jerusalem, and his setting for the coronation anthem I was glad, the bright music on this set will fill out their appreciation of an underrated composer. If we might usefully make a conscious effort to see beyond those aspects of Parry's writing which tether him firmly to his times (even if chiefly to gain a new perspective on the larger-scale orchestral works), then the Archaeus' enthusiasm capped with a largely successful control of these chamber works is to be recommended. Recommended with reservations. But recommended nevertheless.

Copyright © 2018, Mark Sealey