Walton: String Quartets

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LABELS: Black Box
WORKS: String Quartets
PERFORMER: Emperor String Quartet
The early Quartet was premiered in Salzburg in 1923, and impressed Berg, who thought that Walton was well placed to lead a progressive English school of composers. Walton himself described it as ‘full of undigested Bartók and Schoenberg’ and later refused to let his publishers release the work, though he never actually withdrew it. The Emperor Quartet has gone back to Walton’s score, and incorporated cuts and revisions which weren’t in an earlier recording by the Gabrieli Quartet, knocking almost four minutes off the piece in the process. Although I miss the muscular approach of the Gabrieli, the piece certainly comes out more tautly here, especially in the long final movement. The Emperor’s playing is bright and well-blended, and it’s good to hear a young quartet attacking a substantial piece with conviction, though in faster passages its enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of it, and the ensemble becomes a little scrappy. If this Quartet represents the path not taken, the A minor Quartet is in the more familiar language of Walton’s Viola Concerto or First Symphony. The scherzo and finale in particular inhabit the same rhythmic and melodic spaces as the Symphony, while in the slow movement, the expressive writing for the viola – beautifully played – recalls the sombreness of the Concerto. Again there’s vigour and clean lines in the Emperor’s performance, but it’s up against the stiffest competition in the impeccable Hollywood Quartet recording of 50 years ago, where there’s a level of precision and refinement that has yet to be equalled. Martin Cotton