Friday 11 March 2016

The Allegri Quartet give first rate performances of an impressive group of quartets by Alec Roth, full of fine ideas, textures and rhythms on a new release from Nimbus

Born near Manchester, of German/Irish descent, English composer, Alec Roth studied music at the University of Durham, where he was awarded the Scott Prize and gamelan at the Academy of Indonesian Performing Arts (ASKI) in Surakarta, Central Java.

From 1986 to 1989 he was holder of the Collard Fellowship, and in 2000 received a major grant to further his composition work from the Gulbenkian Foundation. He has been Founder/Artistic Director of the Royal Festival Hall Gamelan Programme and South Bank Gamelan Players (1987-91); Music Director of the Baylis Programme at English National Opera (1988-93); Composer in Association, Opera North (1994-96); and Lecturer in Music, University of Edinburgh (2002-03).

Now working as a freelance composer, his collaborations with the Indian writer Vikram Seth include the song cycles Chinese Gardens (Chester Festival commission 1998) and Romantic Residues (Bury St Edmunds Festival commission 2003) and Earth and Sky for children’s chorus (BBC commission for the Proms 2000 season).

Vikram Seth was also the librettist for Arion and the Dolphin, commissioned by English National Opera and premiered in the Royal Navy Dockyard, Plymouth in 1994. Subsequent productions have taken place in Singapore, Nottingham and Rotterdam.

Other works include a version of Shakespeare's The Tempest with gamelan (1989); Gretel and Hansel (1988), The Big Wash Cycle (1994); All Summer in a Day (1996) and four commissions for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Departure of the Queen of Sheba (1999) for oboe, cor anglais and string orchestra, Nocturne (2000) for viola and string orchestra; Concertino Piccolo (2006) for string orchestra with two groups of young violinists; and Concerto for Guitar and String Orchestra (2010).

Between 2006 and 2009 he completed The Rivered Earth, a sequence of four major works created in collaboration with Vikram Seth and violinist Philippe Honoré, co-commissioned by the Salisbury, Chelsea and Lichfield Festivals. The first, Songs in Time of War, for tenor (Mark Padmore), violin, harp and guitar, the second, a pair of works – Shared Ground for unaccompanied choir (Ex Cathedra) and Ponticelli for solo violin – was premiered in 2007. The third, The Traveller, an oratorio for violin, tenor, choir, children’s choir and orchestra (Britten Sinfonia) received its first performance in Salisbury Cathedral in May 2008. The series was completed with Seven Elements for tenor (James Gilchrist) and piano (Rustem Hayroudinoff) and Seven Elements Suite for violin and piano in 2009.

2010 saw the first performance of Alec Roth’s String Quartet No.2, soon followed by String Quartets No.3 and 4, all written for the Allegri Quartet  and premiered by them between 2010 and 2013. The Allegri Quartet have now recorded these three quartets for Nimbus

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String Quartet No.2 was commissioned by James and Lis Woods and first performed by the Allegri Quartet in St Thomas’ Church, Salisbury on 23rd May 2010 as part of the Salisbury Festival. In five movements, it explores ideas relating to waiting.

In Waiting (1) a repeated string motif is taken forward out of which a theme develops. Despite its ever changing lines, the underlying motif does bring a feel of anticipation or waiting, of time constantly revolving. Here the Allegri Quartet weaves some very fine textures. A pizzicato violin motif introduces Dancing (1), a fast moving rhythmic motif for the Quartet, each line dancing freely and forming a terrific whole. Soon bowed phrases arrive but the pizzicato returns providing a terrific spring to the rhythm. Eventually a wailing string motif is heard above the players but the pizzicato phrases dance ahead to bring the coda. This is a movement of terrific invention played with great panache.

Singing opens quietly and slowly on a long drawn, drone like phrase from the viola and cello before the Quartet slowly draw the music up. They create a terrific intensity as the theme is brought to a passionate peak before falling back. The Allegri Quartet provides some very fine sonorities before falling to a halt on a final chord.  

Dancing (2) opens brightly and joyously with a repeated motif that is soon developed, each instrument bringing new textures to vary the music. As it develops there are some terrific moments as the individual instruments add details, all the while weaving a very fine tapestry of sound and often finding a terrific rhythmic energy. After the experience of the central three movement we find ourselves ‘waiting’ again, as the Quartet bring the sonorous chords of Waiting (2), full of fine textures, with pizzicato phrases to add to the texture and remind us of what has gone before. Indeed with the long drawn chords and many little details this final movement seems to recall so much of what has gone before until moving to an exquisite hushed coda.

String Quartet No.3 'Autumnal' was also commissioned by James and Lis Woods and first performed by the Allegri Quartet at St Thomas’s Church, Salisbury on 4th  June 2013 as part of the Salisbury Festival. It is based around a setting by the composer of poem by John Donne ‘No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace, As I have seen in one autumnal face.’ The first of its four movements is Prelude where vibrant pizzicato chords open a striding repeated motif that soon slows to bring a rich deep cello theme. This fine melody demonstrates just what a gift Roth has for melody. The theme is shared around the players with, later, a sudden violin outburst full of passion over pizzicato phrases from the rest of the quartet. The violin weaves the melody ahead, soon taken by all the players before the gentle coda is reached.

The viola introduces a fine theme in Serenade joined by all the players as they add fine harmonies and textures. It is one of those themes that stick in the mind, beautifully revealed by the Allegri Quartet. Soon they bring a quizzical section with pizzicato phrases over which a rich theme is played. Eventually a tango rhythm is revealed that has been there all along. Later the music slows to a longer viola melody supported by the rest of the quartet in a rather sultry version of the theme before eventually the opening theme leads to the coda.

After the dance rhythms of the Serenade in the third movement, Dance, pizzicato strings rise over a cello chord to a motoric rhythm with ever unfolding layers, rising to an intense brilliance as the Allegri Quartet adds incisive layers in this fast moving movement. The music eventually gains the feel of a frantic Eastern dance - before suddenly dropping to pizzicato phrases. The motoric rhythm returns, over which the theme appears before racing, with just a very brief respite, to the coda.

Meditation brings a slow, melancholy theme that has a plodding pizzicato pulse in the cello. These players bring fine textures with a gently anguished sound appearing as the music rises in passion in a fine melody. There are some lovely rich textures before falling to a shimmering texture as the coda arrives.

The composer tells us that he moved from London to Malvern in 2011. Despite being composed during his walks on the Malvern Hills his String Quartet No.4 'On Malvern Hills' is quite abstract. However, Roth tells us that he has incorporated thematic material form Elgar’s works extensively transforming them. Commissioned by the Malvern Concert Club the Allegri Quartet gave the first performance at the Forum Theatre, Malvern on 26th September 2013.

Fleeting opens with a repeated motif that soon varies in rhythm and is overlaid with new textures. The music rises suddenly with some broad chords, full of deep sonority and wonderful textures. The opening motif returns soon to be developed into a softer, gentler version with some very fine individual string lines. The repeated opening motif returns frequently throughout but is always quickly overlaid with other lines and harmonies, constantly developing before finding a rich sonorous coda with repeated chords.

Bright brings a series of bright sounding chords against a fast moving motif before falling to a slower yet still rhythmic theme. The theme is taken forward and woven through a myriad of variations. There are some particularly rather beautiful passages before the opening chords return only to be developed with even bolder, richer harmonies and textures before a rich, gentle coda. 

The cello opens Dark with a slowly rising mournful theme before the other strings suddenly bring a lighter buoyant theme to which the cello eventually joins. Soon the cello again brings its deep, rich mournful theme to which the other strings join, apparently giving way to the more sombre ideas of the cello. However, they cannot be held back and soon return with the more buoyant theme before finding a settled compromise to end. 

Ambling opens slowly and quietly with each instrument finding its own variant of the theme. The music achieves a lovely pace very much reflecting the title, though with little pauses that suggest a pause to look around. There are some subtle variations of rhythm in this overall sunny movement, full of great textural variety and well-conceived variations. There is a little tune that seems to reveal itself as familiar before the music rises up high as a lovely version of the theme is played by the first violin and the hushed coda arrives.

Listeners will surely hear hints of familiar themes yet, so closely are they woven into Roth’s textures and ideas, one is never quite sure. 

These are an impressive group of quartets, full of fine ideas, textures and rhythms. As would be expected, the Allegri Quartet give first rate performances.   

They are finely recorded by Tony Faulkner at Pamoja Hall, The SPACE, Sevenoaks School, England. There are useful notes from the composer.  

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