WALTON: Piano Quartet in D minor (1921; rev. 1974). String Quartet in A minor (1947).
Maggini Quartet; Peter Donohoe, piano.

Naxos 8.554646 [B] [DDD]  TT: 57:38


British composers since Elgar have sidestepped chamber music by and large, in favor of operas, orchestral works, and big choral machines. Michael Tippett was the most productive during an interminable lifetime: five string quartets over a period of 50-some years. William Walton wrote only the one on this disc, plus the companion Piano Quartet. Benjamin Britten wrote four for strings—the three to which he gave numbers are the glory of Britain's 20th-century repertoire, along with a generous sheaf of music for solo instruments and small ensembles.

Comparatively, Walton's two quartets are dutiful pieces of high technical gloss, which is not to say negligible. His strengths remind me of Kurt Atterberg (see the review of his Symphonies 1 and 4), especially his talent for scherzos and Allegro molto movements. But the quartet idiom seems inhibiting to a man whose reputation was made by setting Edith Sitwell's bon ton doggerel in Facade, followed by the oratorio Belshazzar's Feast, and a First Symphony whose last movement was slow to come but a rattling good one when Willie did finally marshal his forces. And there are his excellent concertos for string instruments.

But these two quartets leave one waiting for a commitment to something more inward than the fact of writing them. The Piano Quartet, played with great gusto by Peter Donohoe and three members of the muscular Maggini Quartet, is an early work that might have been good fun in its original form ("with its echoes of Ravel, Vaughan Williams and even Elgar"  in the words of Naxos' back sleeve blurb), rather than a rewriting of it 53 years later, a longer time than any of Bruckner's agonizing afterthoughts. The String Quartet came at an awkward time in Walton's career—the boy wonder was aging, but no longer topping himself. It is a middle-aged piece with some admirably serious gestures, even a couple of themes that survive the first playing, but not music in Britten's league (although I prefer it to any by that self-promoting humbug, Tippett).

Recorded sound is in your face yet neither bellicose nor unbeautiful. But don't let the cover coax you to buy; the music is a world apart from Grimshaw's dour painting of  "A Yorkshire House"  that hangs in some London museum. Keith Anderson's notes, while not copious (given translations into French and Spanish), are pithy and informative --  consistently among the best in the classical record business circa Y2K.

R.D. (May 2000)