String Quartet no.1 (1972)
String Quartet no.2 (2014-16)
Clarinet Quintet (1993)
Cheltenham Fragments (2004)
Linda Merrick (clarinet), Kreutzer Quartet [Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Mihailo Trandafilovski (violins), Clifton Harrison (viola), Neil Heyde (cello)
Toccata Classics TOCC0573 [56’14”]
Producer Peter Sheppard Skaerved
Engineer Jonathan Haskell
Recorded 5 July, 30 October 2019, 3 March 2020 at St. Michael’s, Highgate, London
Written by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
Toccata Classics issues only the third release to be devoted to the music of Simon Banbridge (1952-2021), whose recent and untimely death at the age of 68 has made this an unintended if pertinent memorial to one of the more underestimated British composers of his generation.
What’s the music like?
Bainbridge’s two string quartets effectively frame his output. Commissioned by André Previn for the South Bank Summer Music, the First Quartet finds a composer barely into his twenties taking on board then recent innovations emanating from Eastern Europe (notably the Second Quartet by Ligeti) and fashioning these into a tense single movement whose juxtaposition of timbre and texture are integrated so that the music feels inevitable in its unfolding. What was heard ‘in passing’ proves to have had a decisive implication when encountered in retrospect.
By the time of his Clarinet Quintet, Bainbridge was creating music as distinctive in idiom as it was virtuosic in its technical demands. Analogies with the ‘classic’ works for this medium by Mozart, Brahms and Reger may be elusive, but the piece likewise evinces an introspection (whether – or not – ‘autumnal’) that offsets an inner world teeming with formal subtleties and expressive nuances. Once again, it is the slightest gestures and pithiest motifs which prove to be crucial in the elaboration of what is one of the composer’s most seamless overall concepts.
In contrast, Cheltenham Fragments proceeds as a sequence of ideas such as takes in various combinations of the ensemble as it assembles a design certain to be perceived differently by each listener, if not the element of high-flown lyricism which comes momentarily to the fore.
Moving to the Second Quartet is to find Bainbridge engaged in a distillation of compositional practice, underpinned by the direct influence of visual art – namely Ethopian-born American artist Julie Mehretu, images of whose canvasses were projected to the rear of the ensemble at the first performance. Not that a visual component should be necessary for appreciating what, unlike the preceding pieces, is music whose rapidity of gesture is abetted by that of tempo in this audibly fast-moving work – any passing sense of slowness occasioned by context rather than actuality. Moments of intense eloquence do emerge over the course of these 21 minutes, their short-lived repose acting as points of orientation during what is otherwise a propulsive journey toward a conclusion which, if it indeed brings oblivion, does so with exquisite poise.
Does it all work?
It does, not least through the commitment of the Kreutzer Quartet and, in the Clarinet Quintet, Linda Merrick in teasing out cohesion and imagination from music that possesses both these qualities in abundance, but which might easily be overlooked given its underlying reticence or unwillingness to ‘force the issue’. Along with its contribution to Toccata’s disc of Jeremy Dale Roberts (TOCC0487), this finds the Kreuzer at its considerable best – aided by commendably natural sound and thoughtful annotations by Peter Shepperd Skaerved and David Wordsworth.
Is it recommended?
Indeed, and listeners are encouraged to investigate two NMC releases devoted to Bainbridge – one with his breakthrough work, the Viola Concerto (NMCD126), the other his Grawemeyer Award-winning song-cycle Ad ora incerta (NMCD059). More recordings will surely follow.
You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording.