Mcewen: String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 8; String Quartet No. 15 (A Little Quartet ‘in modo scotico’)

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COMPOSERS: Mcewen
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 8; String Quartet No. 15 (A Little Quartet ‘in modo scotico’)
PERFORMER: Chilingirian Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10182
The third instalment of the Chilingirian Quartet’s survey of the voluminous quartet output of JB McEwen confirms the impressions generated by Vols 1 and 2 (reviewed September 2002 and October 2003) – the Scottish head of the Royal Academy of Music was in no sense an academic composer but a sensitive, inventive and quietly innovative master of his genre. There is no earthly reason why pieces like Quartets Nos 8 and 15 – brief, tautly structured, subtle in their moods, showing easy acquaintance with contemporaries such as Debussy and Bartók and products of high civilisation – should not occasionally grace recital programmes. So many more famous names have written far less effectively for the medium. Quartet No. 15 (1936) is subtitled ‘in modo scotico’, and the same could be said of the big, more Bruchian-Romantic Quartet No. 2 of 1898, but McEwen seems to have learned early on that he must treat his ‘Scotticisms’ of melody and harmony as the basis of searching musical argument rather than mere local colour, and in No. 15’s ‘Reel Time’ finale, magnificently carried here by the bravura playing of cellist Philip de Groote, he sounds most like a Caledonian Kodály or Bartók. Performance and recording are well up to the standards on previous volumes. All praise to the Chilingirian, and they play with patent affection for the music, but I sometimes feel movements could be more incisively characterised, rhythms more pungently pointed. Enthusiastically recommended nonetheless. Calum MacDonald

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