Mcewen: String Quartet No. 4; String Quartet No. 7 (Threnody); String Quartet No. 16 (Provençale); String Quartet No. 17 (Fantasia)

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COMPOSERS: Mcewen
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: String Quartet No. 4; String Quartet No. 7 (Threnody); String Quartet No. 16 (Provençale); String Quartet No. 17 (Fantasia)
PERFORMER: Chilingirian Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9926
Chandos has already issued orchestral, choral and instrumental works by John Blackwood McEwen; but the Scottish director of the Royal Academy of Music between the wars was principally renowned as a string quartet composer. Indeed with 19 in all he has some claim to be considered the foremost British practitioner of the genre, little good though that did for his posthumous fame. So this first volume in a survey of his quartet output at once corrects an injustice. Throughout, McEwen handles the medium with the assurance and resourcefulness of a master. His intelligent openness to contemporary influence makes Frank Bridge’s Quartets, for instance, or the early Britten, seem less isolated phenomena than many have assumed.

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I read Levon Chilingirian’s booklet-note claim that No. 4 (1905) ‘has echoes of early Bartók’ with some scepticism, but indeed the tense and angular chromatics of the first movement place McEwen among the most progressive composers of the time: it anticipates early Bartók, and probably comes from the same (Straussian) source. The arch-form of the viola-dominated, single-movement No. 7 (1916) is also suggestive: its title Threnody and use of a 16th-century Scots lament surely relate to its wartime date, though Chilingirian does not specify McEwen’s inspiration. Alternately haunted and sunny, the richly coloured No. 16 (1936) is in McEwen’s Francophile, post-Impressionist vein, while a considerably later Bartók has some part in the restless questings of the compact, one-movement No. 17, written when McEwen was nearly 80. Calum MacDonald