England and France Meet in a Double Musical Celebration

Holst, Vaughan Williams, Howells, Ravel: The Bridge Quartet [Colin Twigg, Catherine Schofield (violins), Michael Schofield (viola), Lucy Wilding (cello)], All Saints’ Church, Cheltenham, 26.9.2015. (RJ)

Gustav Holst: Phantasy on British Folksongs, Op 36
Ralph Vaughan Williams: String Quartet in G minor
Herbert Howells: Phantasy String Quartet, Op 25
Maurice Ravel: String Quartet in F major

It was a particularly felicitous idea of the RVW Society to become involved in the annual Holst Birthday concert as part of its 21st anniversary celebrations. Holst and Vaughan Williams were the greatest of friends who spent countless hours together walking through the countryside. In addition both were keen to break free from the Austro-Hungarian musical tradition and establish an English style of music.

An exploration of English folk song was an important way of achieving this ambition, and as the first work in this recital demonstrated, Holst was a past master in this regard. Four melodies are woven into this work (Eggs in her Basket, The Outlandish Night,The Female Farmer, and The Outlandish Knight) which began with a solo passage for viola and highlighted each of the instruments in turn. The lively dance introduced by the second violin proved to be racy, rhythmically complex affair, and overall this attractive piece with its range of different moods proved an ideal opening for this recital. Since these folk songs are relatively unfamiliar it is a pity their melodies were not quoted in the programme notes for ease of identification.

Herbert Howells was Holst’s successor as Director of Music at St Paul’s School in Hammersmith, but his Phantasy String Quartet composed around the same time as the Holst work could not have been more different. This is a much darker work pervaded by a deep melancholy, and while it is within the folk song tradition it is passionate rather than bucolic. There was a particularly beautiful passage for the viola in which the other instruments provided whispered support.

English composers have sometimes been accused of being remote from the European mainstream, yet there is nothing insular about the three featured in this recital. Vaughan Williams, for instance, went to France to study for a short time with Ravel and soon after his return composed the String Quartet in G minor. One could detect Gallic influences in the lyrical subtleties of the first movement, while the second was very much a minuet and trio with plenty of pizzicato flavouring. The Romance was the beating heart of the piece, gentle and dreamlike expressing deeply felt emotion; but in the Rondo Capriccioso the Bridge Quartet were out on the village green letting their hair down and enjoying cream teas between the folk dances.

In his photos Ravel always strikes one as being aloof, but he was a great support to VW and even offered to play the piano accompaniment for On Wenlock Edge at its Paris premiere. In this recital he was accorded the status of honorary Englishman, his String Quartet in F major providing a superb climax to this evening. It was good to have a familiar work by which to judge the quality of the Bridge Quartet’s playing for while their commitment to the relatively unfamiliar English pieces was beyond question, their interpretation of this modern classic was stunning. There was a nice flow to the lyrical first movement, and they brought out the folk rhythms of Iberia with great panache in the second. The Nocturne was sheer magic in which one could sense the small creatures of the night scurrying around as the pale rays of the moon shone down casting shadows. The dream was soon shattered by the virtuoso finale which was truly vif et agité.

This was an excellent party indeed combining neglected gems by national composers and an evergreen work from across the Channel.

Roger Jones

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