String Quartets 4, 5 and Légende

Cirrus String Quartet


‘Billy’ Reed is mostly remembered now as the friend and adviser to Elgar; but as this valuable release demonstrates he was also a composer, who seems to have enjoyed some success in his day, particularly with ‘genre’ orchestral pieces with titles like Merry Andrew and Will O’ the Wisp.

The only recording of his music I have is of some rather slight violin and piano pieces which tempted me to consign him to the ‘Sunday’ hobbyist drawer, but as this new disc reveals he was – if certainly of his time – rather more than that.

It features the only two of his five string quartets currently thought to have survived. No 4 from 1913 opens with an Allegro Moderato that is agreeable but perhaps a little lightweight – somewhat reminiscent of Frank Bridge’s salon-style pieces. So, it’s a surprise when the slow movement opens with a liturgical-style chanted figure, suggesting greater emotional and spiritual depths – although in the event the music, hushed and reverent, is content just to glow like a Byzantine Icon. The scherzo is half blithe summer breezes and half scampering dance, while the finale veers into new harmonic areas to provide some heft with a rather more ‘modern’ (for the time) and satisfyingly complex finale.

The two movements of the Légende comprise a frankly rather glum waltz and an enigmatic Allegro that twists turns and jigs throughout a variety of rhythms harmonies and textures without quite establishing an overall mood – all in all something of an (experimental?) curiosity.

Quartet 5 – yet another of the many Cobbett competition contestants – opens with an uneasy rather queasily unsettled movement, which is succeeded by an altogether more conventionally graceful Vivace. The slow movement is the deepest and most rewarding – hardest to fathom and possibly hardest to play – while the initially sombre fourth never entirely shakes off its shadows until finally it wrestles its way through some uncomfortable harmonic byways to reach a kind of cautiously affirmative resolution – one that the 1915 audience might have felt was as positive as possible, given the circumstances.

As always with this label performances (a few moments of intonation aside) recording and notes are excellent. These are solid and by no means always predictably conservative works, built on strong themes and clear-cut rhythms – eminently worth an evening (or more!) of your time.   

Review by Kevin Mandry