Classical listening at home: Elizabeth Maconchy and Vaughan Williams; Castalian Quartet | Classical music
This year, the 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ birth has prompted welcome pairings of his music with some of his songwriting associates. Among her most gifted students was Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994), who praised her inspirational teaching not for technical instruction but for pushing her to the highest artistic ideals and banishing any risk of “cheap effects “.
Songs of Elizabeth Maconchy and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Volume 1 (Resonus), sung by James Greer (tenor) with Ronald Woodley (piano), combines the familiar and the novel. The Vaughan Williams Cycle travel songs receives new buoyancy when sung by a tenor instead of the more usual baritone. Maconchy’s songs, mostly unpublished and some salvaged from manuscripts, span 70 years, ranging from mere lyric to modernist invention. The dramatic scene Faustus (1971) shows Maconchy at the top of his game, giving equal authority to voice and piano, performed with persuasive urgency by Greer and Woodley. This is the first of two discs. I look forward to the next one.
With a Finnish first violin, a Welsh second, an Irish violist and an English cellist, it is not easy to sum up the Castalian String Quartetnot to mention the music they play, often written for an entirely different medium. Between two worlds (Delphian), on a loose theme from dark to light, has at its heart Beethoven’s Last Quartet, No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, beautifully sprung, precise and detailed. The slow “thanksgiving” pivot movement is tense and serene. A compelling reason to buy the record is Thomas Adès’ The Four Quartets, Op 28 (2011), tracing the course of the day from the whispered harmonics of Nightfalls to the driving pizzicatos of Morning Dew, the lingering ostinatos of Days and the disturbed fictions of The Twenty-Fifth Hour.
The album opens with The Cold and Dark Night of Orlando by Lassus and closes with Come, Heavy Sleep by John Dowland, both arranged by the group’s first violinist, Sini Simonen. Many quartets broke the tradition of single-composer records. The Castalians do it with cutting-edge performance and meticulous imagination.