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LABELS: Altarus
WORKS: String Quintet
PERFORMER: Sarah Leonard (soprano), Jagdish Mistry, Marcus Barcham-Stevens (violin), Levine Andrade (viola), Michael Stirling (cello), Corrado Canonici (double bass)
The first few bars had me reaching for a pencil and writing ‘Glenn Gould, Op. 1!’. And like that loveable string quartet, this extraordinary quintet, which many may eventually take to their hearts for its cornucopic lyricism, exists in ardent communication with the super-Romantic string works of Schoenberg (though the only actual quotations, the composer tells us, are from Schumann and Gershwin). It was begun in 1969 when Alistair Hinton – best known perhaps as the man who persuaded Kaikhosru Sorabji to revoke the ban on performance of his music – was a student of Humphrey Searle at the RCM. He’d been profoundly affected by his discovery of early Schoenberg and coupled with a reaction to the prevailing worship of Searle’s teacher Webern, the five-movement Quintet was fashioned with many difficulties and hiatuses through eight years.


It’s claimed, surely accurately, as ‘the longest string quintet in history’, but the first four movements are of merely Beethovenian length (the second scherzo a mere three-minute wisp): they are but the overture to a ‘finale’ lasting over two hours. This has by far the widest stylistic range. After its first 15 minutes a soprano enters (shades of Schoenberg Op. 10) and it becomes an extended vocal sequence setting words by, among others, Schoenberg, Delius, Berlioz, Sorabji, Keats, Milton, Browning, Tagore and Kahlil Gibran – and centrally punctuated by a triple fugue which does nothing to conceal its inspiration in Beethoven’s Op. 133.


This recording (and premiere performance) of an otherwise utterly unknown and unlikely work is an admirable act of faith. The strings are beautifully recorded; Sarah Leonard, giving what must be a landmark performance of her career, sounds unduly far back, but this is clearly deliberate; certainly the strings are never obscured. Hinton’s booklet notes amount to a sizeable and often interesting chunk of autobiography, climaxing in the fact that on the way to the final session from the West Country he missed, by seconds, catching one of the trains that was involved in the Paddington rail disaster. Calum MacDonald