February 2008

Maw - String Quartet No. 3. Britten - Quartet No. 3; Three Divertimenti
Coull Quartet
Somm 065
Format: CD
Released: 2007

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

It seems incredible that so striking a work as Nicholas Maw’s Third String Quartet has waited a dozen years for its first recording, but it is an unarguably authoritative and excellent one. The University of Warwick commissioned the work for the Coull Quartet, its resident ensemble since 1977, which introduced it in January 1995, recorded it the following November, and has performed it in numerous venues since then. Like all of Maw’s music, the Quartet is direct in its language, superbly crafted, rich in substance. Its five connected movements are fascinating in their subtlety and contrasts -- and no less remarkable for their conciseness. This is music that feels so concentrated that not a single note could be omitted without to some degree weakening it; and for all its economy of gesture it gives off a feeling of expansiveness.

It is a spiritual phenomenon, encountered with heartening frequency in Maw’s music. In this case the opening Moderato grazioso simply unfolds, without preamble, in a virtual definition of the term grazioso. The concluding Lento molto, the work’s longest section, is gently elegiac without being mournful, and the kaleidoscope of colors and rhythms in the three inner movements simply defies description. The performance is authoritative and compelling, and the recording itself suits the music ideally. The same goes for the relatively familiar Britten works, though it might be felt that an additional work of Maw’s would have been more welcome.

As it stands, though, Maw is definitely in good company here, and if Britten’s name helps to draw attention to this splendid release, so much the better.