Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Watkins

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Elgar,Vaughan Williams,Watkins
LABELS: Sonimage
WORKS: Vaughan Williams: Phantasy Quintet; Watkins: Sad Steps; Elgar: Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84
PERFORMER: Aronowitz Ensemble
CATALOGUE NO: SON 10901

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Modest in style and ambition, Vaughan Williams’s Phantasy Quintet is actually much more successful and satisfying than either of his string quartets. But then in his early works he’d often been drawn to larger chamber ensembles. And performed with this kind of loving refinement it makes a very repeatable experience.

The glimpse forward to The Lark Ascending in the finale is especially touching. Huw Watkins’s tender, autumn-scented Sad Steps, though nearly a century younger than the Vaughan Williams, follows it so naturally that you might find it hard to believe that they’re separated by two world wars and decades of political fallout.

Stylistically the lead into late Elgar isn’t quite so effortless, yet it’s soon clear that the Piano Quintet, haunted by rumours of war and deep unease at what might follow, fits into this company well. 

Splendid in both the Vaughan Williams and the Watkins, the Aronowitz Ensemble probe deeply into the Elgar Quintet’s elegiac slow movement, and there are some nice ‘ghostly’ (Elgar’s own description) touches in the first movement.

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However, in the faster music they don’t always manage to make the rhythms dance or fly. Elgar loves to repeat rhythmic patterns, and they need a subtle touch if they aren’t to sound mechanical. The Aronowitz do well on the whole, and the recorded sound is lovely, but they don’t quite have the sustained mastery of the Nash Ensemble version on Helios, which remains first choice – though not by a huge margin. Stephen Johnson