Elgar: String Quartets

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: String Quartet in E minor, Op. 83; Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84; March in D; Mina; Laura Valse; Impromptu
PERFORMER: Goldner String Quartet; Piers Lane (piano)

This is one of those rare discs that give pleasure and food for thought in equal measure. Do we still need to be made to think about Elgar’s late chamber music? Indeed we do. Today critics still put down Elgar’s Piano Quintet and String Quartet as ‘conservative’. And yet it’s striking how often these works’ allegedly familiar language eludes performers. Like his idol Schumann, Elgar often builds long melodic paragraphs on a single repeating rhythmic pattern.
Played unsympathetically it sounds – simply – repetitious. But when it’s played with the kind of understanding shown by these five musicians it leaves one wondering how anyone could miss the subtle variety, the elegant sophistication under the surface. In the Piano Quintet’s first movement the leading motif of the ‘Spanish’ second theme seems to acquire a different meaning each time we hear it: sometimes echoing the work’s eerie opening figure, sometimes dodging it deftly. The first movement of the String Quartet – earthbound in some performances – is a beautiful but fragile airborne dance. It’s exquisite, yet at times it seems to drift smilingly towards disintegration.
Putting the Quintet and Quartet beside tiny piano pieces like Mina and Impromptu (played beautifully by Piers Lane) is a reminder of how much the spirit of these improvisatory miniatures haunts the bigger works – and of what a delicate balancing act the musicians have to perform when they play them. (The more robust ‘public’ style of the March in D is also part of the picture – as one can hear in the finale of the Quintet.) It has rarely been done as well as here. Even the Nash Ensemble (also on Hyperion) don’t match the delicate, nervous sensibility the Goldner Quartet bring to the String Quartet’s deceptively ‘peaceful’ slow movement, nor the depth of secret sadness they and Lane find in the Piano Quintet’s ghostly opening. And in these musicians’ expert hands the latter’s central Adagio emerges as one of the gems of Romantic chamber music – and certainly not just English Romantic chamber music.
The whole experience is a valuable reminder that Elgar doesn’t display his originality openly. It’s not a matter of being stylistically forward-looking, or even up-to-date: Elgar’s originality is at a deeper level – in the way the music thinks and feels. As to recordings, I would have like a more intimate view of the piano in the solo pieces, but perspective, tone and balance in the String Quartet and Piano Quintet are excellent – all round, a new top recommendation. Stephen Johnson