RAWSTHORNE: String Quartets Nos. 1-3 / Theme and Variations (Andrew Walton/ David Angel/ Laurence Jackson/ Maggini Quartet) (Naxos: 8.570136)
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Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971)
Theme and Variations • String Quartets
Alan Rawsthorne was born at Haslingden in Lancashire in 1905 and entered the Royal Manchester College of Music in 1925 to study piano, cello and composition. After graduation in 1929 he continued his piano studies with Egon Petri in Poland and Germany. Subsequently he decided to make composition his life career. Prior to being conscripted into the army in 1941 he had begun to make his mark with the Theme and Variations for Two Violins and Symphonic Studies, each receiving a performance at I.S.C.M. Festivals, in 1938 and 1939 respectively, the former in London and the latter in Warsaw. On demobilisation he returned to composition until his death in 1971. He composed in all the established forms, except opera, and made a distinguished contribution to twentieth-century British chamber music.
The medium of the string quartet provides a set of distinctive stylistic milestones, which mark the progression of style and language, at salient points along the developmental route travelled by a number of composers – Beethoven, Bartók and Britten are notable examples. This same characteristic applies to Alan Rawsthorne. His first, unpublished, essays in the medium date from 1932 and 1935. The later of the two reveals an emerging individual identity and assurance in writing for the medium; it can thus be regarded as the earliest stylistic marker and be ranked alongside the three published quartets.
The language of the First Quartet (Theme and Variations) follows on from that found in two seminal pieces, Theme and Variations for Two Violins (1937) and Bagatelles for piano (1938). It is an early example of the composer's partiality for variation form, which was to be further employed in the string quartets of 1954 and 1965. The Second Quartet marks a transition in his musical language, echoing works which predate it whilst adopting more succinct expression and concise construction. The Third Quartet is characteristic of the final period of Rawsthorne's creative output. This work has unremitting intensity, is many-layered, breaks with the established form and evinces the austerity which is to be found in many of the compositions of his last decade.
The Theme and Variations for Two Violins of 1937 was Rawsthorne's first published work to receive public recognition and critical acclaim. Its performance at the Festival of International Society for Contemporary Music in London on 18 June 1938 was, as at its première on 7 January 1937, given by the dedicatees Kathleen Washbourne and Rawsthorne's wife, Jessie Hinchliffe. Decca issued a recording of their performance in June 1938; the first commercial recording of his music.
The Theme is a succinct and energetic two part invention. Rawsthorne wrote that throughout the piece he was "convinced that the theme appears in each variation". What is unmistakeably present in the following inventions is the astringency of the harmony which arises from clashes of major and minor. The first variation, Capriccietto, is based on the widely-spaced intervals of the second half of the theme, providing a brilliant work-out for the instrumentalists. The Siciliano, a dance form favoured by the composer, is a close relative of the second of the piano Bagatelles. The jagged statement of the opening of the theme in common time is now transformed into a serene and flowing six-eight metre. In Cancrizzante, a canon, the theme is given out backwards. It is an invention in strict counterpoint, a discipline which Rawsthorne had already explored with assurance in the previous year in his Studies on a Theme by Bach for string trio. Rhapsodia offers a pause in this contemplative variation. The harmonic potential of the theme is exposed in the opening accumulation of seconds, reductions of the fourths of the theme's opening bars. Richness of texture and harmonic variety derive from the imaginative use of double-stopping. The impassioned, lyrical expression of Notturno finds a fitting place at the expressive heart of the work. The first violin takes material from the second part of the theme and declaims it over a tremolando accompaniment. The instruments are muted for the Scherzetto variation, adding buoyancy to the quicksilver writing. It is a study in fleet-of-foot 6/8 triplets, a Rawsthorne fingerprint which was to appear in many works which followed, including the First and Third String Quartets. The energetic writing of Ostinato has the first violin playing the repetitive ostinato figuration fixed on and around D, whilst the second adds decorative interjections and from time to time joins in the ostinato. The persistent D, spent of energy, fades to provide a link to the penultimate variation. In Canone Rawsthorne undertakes a further contrapuntal exploration in strict canon founded upon the original statement of the theme. With the tenth variation, Fantasia, the composer creates a worthy summation to the work by reflecting upon what has gone before. Fugal writing forms the framework of the variation into which quotations from the Siciliano, Rhapsodia and Notturno are interleaved. Finally the Ostinato returns to close the piece with a dramatic flourish.
String Quartet No. 1 (Theme and Variations) was commissioned for the 1939 Vienna Festival, but the outbreak of war precluded its performance and led to the loss of the manuscript. The original work was in two movements, the Theme and Variations being the second. Rawsthorne reconstructed the present work from sketches. When the other movement of the quartet surfaced after the war he commented that he "had come to regard the Variations as a piece in its own right".
The musical language is an extension rather than a development of that employed in the earlier Theme and Variations for Two Violins. The theme gives rise to six variations which lead seamlessly into each other, each variation having its own distinct character or mood, contrasted in a manner similar to those in the earlier work. It was first performed on 26 April 1940 by the Blech Quartet.
The distinctive harmonic, rhythmic and melodic elements of the theme are established within the first four of the nineteen bars of this section, which goes beyond a mere statement of the Theme since the primary material is subjected to a degree of development. In the first variation the composer employs his ubiquitous 6/8 triplet, tarantella-like, figuration in a decoration of the opening bars of the theme. The second variation has a pulsating accompaniment, played by the second violin, viola and cello, providing the harmonic background for the first violin's solo cantilena, which explores the second part of the opening bars of the theme. The movement rises to an assertive climax before settling back to the contemplative mood of the opening section.
In the third the contours of the theme are developed in fleet, energetic writing which clearly comes from the hand of the composer of the Symphonic Studies. At the outset of the fourth variation the violins and viola accumulate and overlap double-stopped intervals to create a background halo of uncertain tonality. With explicit contrast the cello states literal fragments from the theme, providing direction for the ear, like a traveller finding