As I suggested, I did indeed pick up a copy of the William Walton String Quartets disc when I was in Oxford yesterday, and have played it through a few times today. As one or two people have asked me to resurrect the Classical Sundays series here then I will try and write something about the CD now, seeing as its Sunday, though usually I would spend a little more time with it than this before writing.
To recap, I heard a live session on BBC Radio 3 on Friday evening while driving home from work that saw the Doric Quartet interviewed between playing snippets of various works, including one movement of Schubert’s monumental Death and the Maiden quartet, a favourite of mine that sounded incredible played live in the studio rather than from a disc. On the programme they also played a section of the Doric’s very recent CD of Sir William Walton’s two string quartets, which really struck me as I drove home, window down on a humid evening. Listening to this music after a truly horrible day at work was just the tonic I needed. What I wasn’t so sure of, was if the music was really that great, or was it just the fact that playing a string quartet, any string quartet, at that time was likely to have had an impact on my worn out, run down self. Listening today, with a clearer head on a good quality hi-fi rather than via my noisy in car stereo I am not really sure. Its certainly fine music, but I don’t think it comes close to the Schubert…
I know, or knew, little about Walton before listening to this programme (archived on the BBC iPlayer here for a few days longer by the way) and reading the interesting liner notes to the Doric Quartet release. There actually two string quartets on the CD, written a quarter of a century apart and really very different. The first was composed between 1919 and 1922, very much under the influence of Schoenberg and the European avant garde, and so has an atonal structure that does actually appeal to me, but it was the second quartet Walton wrote, immediately after the war over the three year period from 1944 to 1947 that I heard on the radio, and so it is this piece I have focused on today.
Although the second quartet Walton wrote, he didn’t ever name it “No.2” or anything similar, primarily because the later, more established Walton actually renounced his earlier effort as immature, and withdrew it from performances. As the composition dates suggest, Walton is known for being a perfectionist that took forever over each piece he wrote. He wrote very little chamber music, and his quartets are barely mentioned in discussions of his work, which is probably why he hasn’t crossed my path that often. One line quoted on the radio show and repeated int he liner notes really struck me though- a quote from Walton made while he struggled to complete the post-war quartet;
<blockquote>”I’m in a suicidal struggle with four strings and am making no headway whatever”</blockquote>
Listening to any romantically powerful string quartet reminds me of Keith Rowe, seeing as it was a conversation with him that lead me to first investigate this area of music, and the line above, for some reason brought him straight into my head. I also have long admired the role of the composer struggling for months, years even to create the perfect work. This quartet then hits all of the right spots for me. There are elements int here I don’t like so much, for instance the cinematic, filmic qualities that can be heard throughout the opening Allegro movement (Walton had been writing a great deal of film music prior to this composition) and in places the music feels a little too rhythmically bouncy for my ideal tastes, I tend to lean far more towards the romantically dramatic rather than the fragmented elements that appear through much of the quartet, but it still remains an incredibly powerful work. The third movement, a slow Lento (in F major if that interests you) is stunning. Here Walton leaves the more frantic skittering about behind and produces a work of real beauty. It was this third movement that captured my attention on Friday, and listening now I can hear why. So often with classical music, and with quartets in particular I find myself preferring one movement of a composition over the others, and often it is the slower sections I enjoy more than most. Maybe I’m on old romantic at heart.
Anyway I have little else to add, not being an expert on this area of music and having come to this composition only very recently. I will say though that this second quartet by Walton, and the third movement in particular is very impressive. It doesn’t bring me the same degree of pleasure that I have attained from the quartets of Beethoven, Shostakovich, Schubert , Bartok or Haydn, but it is still a piece of music I will probably return to often, and Walton is a name I will likely pay more attention to in the future.
Perhaps I’ll try and write about some Haydn quartets next Sunday. We shall see.