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June 10, 1997

Modern Composer

Alan Rawsthorne. Four String Quartets. [String Quartet No. 1 -- "Theme and Variations" (1939); String Quartet No. 2 (1954); String Quartet No. 3 (1965); unpublished String Quartet (1935)] The Flesch Quartet. (ASV Ltd., CD # DCA 983) 1997.

This new album from ASV Records contains all four string quartets written by the English composer Alan Rawsthorne (19905 - 1971), including the world premiere recording of his earliest quartet, from 1935. Rawsthorne is not a well- known name in many households, especially American ones, but he has a dedicated following in England, evidenced by the active Alan Rawsthorne Society and their publication The Creel, an annual journal containing a variety of both personal and scholarly articles about the man and his music. There are also a number of internet sites devoted exclusively to Rawsthorne and his music.

After aborted careers in dentistry and architecture, Rawsthorne began his musical career as a pianist, but gave up public performance at a fairly early age and turned to composing and working as an accompanist. The notes to this album describe him as "well-organized, even fastidious, with a sharp-edged wit which leads naturally towards penetrating observation." His fastidiousness resulted in a relatively small total body of work, because he was not willing to release a work that did not measure up to his own standards, though he did write a considerable amount of music for film. Stylistically located in the line of British composers that includes Elgar, Walton, Constance Lambert, and Tippett, his music has been described as "understated" and "characterized by clarity, craftmanship, and conciseness."

The String Quartet No. 3, from 1965, is also marked by virtuoso use of a dazzling variety of musical textures. Written in four sections "performed in a single unbroken sweep," the work begins with a bold statement of a six-bar theme that forms "the germ from which the entire work grows." After that initial statement, the tone immediately settles down to a more subdued and melodic section. Throughout the piece the composer maintains a continually-shifting delicate balance among the four voices, using the four in a seemingly endless variety of permutations and combinations, but without compromising the overall structural integrity of the work.

The slow middle section begins with a complex interplay of a dolorous melodic passage in low strings with a second line played by high strings. The two strains are interwoven in a complex pattern which then splits into an even more complex pattern with each of the four voices going in its own direction, then coming together again in a somewhat altered restatement of the original two-part pattern.

The final section is in the form of a gigue in 6/8 time in which each of the four voices of the quartet seems to find its own way, but each paralleling the others. The section ends with "a recollection of the expressive slower music which made such a strong impact earlier in the work."

This album is a good introduction to a composer who is a major figure in his own country but largely unknown in the U.S. Find out what the British know that we don't.

You can year String Quartet No. 3 by Alan Rawsthorne on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, June 19 at 7:30 p.m. as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950. 18:21

-- J Green


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