Newsletter #50

This is the fifth in our series of newsletters focusing on individual pieces of chamber music, chosen by members of the Strings Attached team. This time Guy Richardson, composer and Strings Attached committee member, writes about another relatively unknown piece from the 20th century.

William Walton String Quartet No 2 in A minor

The first time I heard this quartet was when it was played by The Regency Quartet in Brighton nine years ago. I was so struck by its energy and emotional intensity, I asked one of the players after their performance why it wasn’t better known and played more often. Her answer was it was incredibly tricky to play and unrelentingly so!

This quartet is often only referred to as Walton’s String Quartet in A minor, but is actually his Second. His First, written between 1919-1922, so when the composer was barely out of his teens, was first performed at the initial ISCM Festival in 1923 in Salzburg. The performance was apparently a bit of a fiasco as it was badly played at the end of a long programme and, to the mirth of the audience, the cellist’s spike got stuck in the catch for a trap door and she started to sink below stage!
Walton later described it as ‘ full of undigested Bartok and Schoenberg’ and withdrew it. The critic Ernest Newman thought it was ‘horrible’, but Alban Berg, who was present, was sufficiently impressed to introduce Walton to Schoenberg himself.
One would have thought the experience of the performance would have put him off writing another quartet, and it wasn’t until 1939 that he started a second, but put it aside while writing his wartime film scores. He completed it in 1945 and it was first performed in 1947 by the Blech Quartet in a BBC broadcast.

The quartet is in four movements. The first, marked Allegro, opens with a poignant, lyrical theme featuring a rising minor 6th, which after some development leads into a second far more edgy, offbeat theme. This in turn leads to a hesitant, chordal idea followed by a return of the opening theme which is then transformed into a tremendous fugal section. After a slightly dreamy reflective moment with pizzicato accompaniment, the edgy second theme and hesitant idea are recapitulated and a calmer version of the first theme. The movement ends with a lovely surprise, a dramatic flourish of the rising sixth motif from the opening theme.
The second movement, marked Presto, is effectively the scherzo and has a nervous energy and tremendous rhythmic drive with some witty and playful moments, as well as one striking passage with pizzicato accompaniment.
The third movement, Lento, together with the first, are the most extended of the movements. With the strings muted, it opens serenely but gradually builds to the first of two passionate and anguished climaxes, separated by a more delicate section with pizzicato accompaniment, with echoes of motifs from his First Symphony (1931-35) and Belshazzar’s Feast (1931). The movement ends with the return of the serene opening.
The last movement marked Allegro Molto is short and concentrated. Walton obviously didn’t feel the need for any grand summing up, as in the First Symphony. The main theme is bustling and energetic, almost aggressive at times, with a contrasting central but very brief, warmly lyrical episode. A brisk coda brings the work to an exhilarating end.
Walton, at the request of Neville Marriner, made an arrangement of the quartet for string orchestra in 1971 which he called Sonata for Strings.

There are a few recordings of the quartet on YouTube, of which I recommend the Doric String Quartet’s performance which you can hear by clicking here . There is also a surprisingly effective performance by The Hollywood Quartet of 1949 (!) barring a few clicks in the slow movement, which you also might like to try here .

We are grateful to Tom Wilson for letting us know that The Wigmore Hall will be broadcasting a new series of live lunchtime concerts every weekday in June, in collaboration with BBC Radio 3. You will be able to listen live on radio, or watch a live stream from the empty auditorium on the Wigmore Hall website. Artists involved include Imogen Cooper, Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies, Benjamin Grosvenor, Angela Hewitt, Stephen Hough, Michael Collins, Paul Lewis, Mark Padmore, Mitsuko Uchida and Roderick Williams. That’s marvellous news and it’s due to a donation by an anonymous benefactor.
Enjoy your listening!

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