String Quartet no.1 (c1955)
String Quartet no.2 (1962-4)
String Quartet no.3 (1967)
Fejes Quartet [Tamás Fejes and Yoan Hlebarov (violins), Theodore Chung Lei (viola), Balázs Renczés (cello)
Toccata Classics TOCC0533 [70’34”]
Producer / Engineer Michael Ponder
Recorded 29 June – 2 July 2019 at RSNO Centre, Glasgow
Written by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
Toccata Classics continues its coverage of the Chamber and Instrumental Music by Ronald Center (1913-73) with this release of his three string quartets, written over his final 12 years of creativity and illustrating in full measure the strengths and weaknesses of his composing.
What’s the music like?
Born in Aberdeen then resident in the town of Huntly during his final three decades, Center was evidently a circumspect and retiring figure – if a hard taskmaster for those who studied with him. His modest output includes the powerful cantata Dona nobis pacem (issued on LP by Altarus back in the 1980s and well worth a new recording) and three string quartets – the first being the only work of his which saw publication in his lifetime. Taken as a whole, they epitomize an idiom that is trenchant and idiosyncratic, but often touching in its vulnerability.
The First Quartet is launched by an introduction whose dense textures duly set up the main Allegro by turns forthright and acerbic, its dissonance imbued with stealthy onward motion. There follows a scherzando-like movement whose tensile rhythms underpin ideas of a folk-inflected vitality, then an Adagio where facets of chorale and canon merge into a plangent and haunting threnody. After its equivocal opening bars, the final Allegro maintains a keen impetus – spurred on by pronounced ostinato patterns – through to its curtly decisive close.
The Second Quartet is on an incrementally larger scale, the opening movement setting forth with a proclamatory summons which the main Allegro unfolds in varied and often ingenious ways – not least the way its deceptively episodic trajectory evolves a long-term momentum. There follows a Vivace whose waspish demeanour is by no means devoid of humour, then a Mesto whose modal inflection and wistful central section make it the work’s emotional heart. Dance elements pervade the finale, an Allegro of headlong and ultimately unresolved energy.
The Third Quartet is outwardly more exploratory in its intensive use of serial elements and a seven-movement format, out of which larger sub-groupings emerge. Hence the opening two movements outline a methodical then ruminative first part; balanced by the speculative then quizzical, and impetuous then halting character of those which follow. That leaves the final Allegro to provide its forceful if increasingly eloquent and not a little fatalistic conclusion to a work which, though he was to live for a further six years, proved to be the composer’s last.
Does it all work?
Almost. Center was evidently a composer fully aware of what had been written in Europe up to the Second World War and after 1945, yet his three quartets suggest an ongoing struggle to redefine the possibilities of Bartók and Shostakovich et al in his own terms – hence leading to a sense of frustration, even inhibition, which is reflected in the frequent formal and expressive discontinuities of each piece. Qualities that come over in these excellent accounts by the Fejes Quartet, whose interpretative equivocation is – necessarily? – bound up with that of the music.
Is it recommended?
Yes. The first two quartets have been recorded (by the Saltire and Isla Quartets respectively) but having all three in first-rate sound with insightful notes by Alasdair Grant can only be to Center’s benefit. Might it be possible to record the music for string orchestra in due course?
You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording. To find out more about the composer, visit the Ronald Center website, while you can click on the links for more on the Fejes Quartet and Deveron Projects