On Record – Primrose Piano Quartet, New Music Players – Ed Hughes: Music for the South Downs (Métier)

Primrose Piano Quartet [Susanne Stanzeleit (violin), Dorothea Vogel (viola) Andrew Fuller (cello) John Thwaites (piano)]; New Music Players / Ed Hughes

Ed Hughes
Chroma (1997)
Flint (2019)
Nonet (2020)
Lunar (2021)
The Woods So Wild (2020-21)

Métier msv28623 [68’32”]
Producer / Engineer David Marshalsea

Recorded 18 March 2021 at St John’s Smith Square, 28 October and 4 December 2021 at Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts, University of Sussex

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Métier continues its coverage of music by Ed Hughes (b1968) with a release of works partly inspired by and even permeated with the qualities of the South Downs, making for a cohesive selection whose five constituents are tellingly thrown into relief by having been so arranged.

What’s the music like?

Ed (formally Edward Dudley) Hughes has been an enriching presence on the UK new music scene since the BBC broadcast of his orchestral piece Crimson Flames marked him out as a name to watch over three decades ago. He has assembled a sizable as well as diverse body of work across a broad range of genres, one which reveals a notable awareness of the evolution of Western music not just over this past century but across what might reasonably be termed the ‘humanist’ tradition which stretches back through the Enlightenment to the Renaissance.

The present sequence opens with Flint that evokes the Sussex landscape in terms of natural cliff formations and man-made quarries. The three movements are pointedly distinct – often angular gestures of the first being contrasted with the restrained fervour of its successor (in which a local song once collected by George Butterworth threads it way across the content), before the third highlights solo violin for a texture whose shifting emphases add appreciably to its expressive impetus. Although written to complement a film by Sam Moore (which can be seen via Hughes’s website), Nonet is musically self-sufficient – whether in the undulating variety of incident in its initial ‘Con moto’, the sense of being side-tracked and even waylaid in the central ‘Tranquil’, or a gradual feeling of emergence then arrival in the final ‘Flowing’.

Very different in its concept is the Lunar diptych – inspired by Isamu Noguchi sculptures and juxtaposing the darkly translucent harmonies of ‘Lunar 1’ with the agile luminescent gestures of ‘Lunar 2’. The earliest work here, Chroma is also the most abstract in terms of content that derives meaning from its interplay of outward volatility with underlying calm; a process made manifest in the distinction between string quartet and string ensemble over much of its course. Finally, The Woods So Wild turns to the medium of piano quartet and a song from the Tudor era whose plangent modality is brought to bear on the animated melodic weave of its opening movement as on the harmonic eloquence of its central intermezzo – duly heading into a finale whose rhythmic intricacy does not prevent the song coming through affirmatively at the close.

Does it all work?

It does indeed. Without drawing attention to itself in technical terms, Hughes’s music has an understated virtuosity such as adds greatly to the attraction of those pieces featured here. The performances are audibly attuned to this music, whether those by the Primrose Piano Quartet (arguably the finest such ensemble in the UK) or New Music Players which Hughes founded over three decades ago. Nor does the sound, recorded at two different venues, leave anything to be desired in clarity and perspective. The composer has provided informative annotations.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. There are four earlier releases of Ed Hughes from Métier and those who have acquired some or all of these will want this new one too. Those new to his music will find the latest selection an appealing way into this composer and, as such, to be warmly recommended.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Divine Art website, and for more on Ed Hughes click here. Click on the artist names for more on the Primrose Piano Quartet and the New Music Players, and click here for the South Downs National Park website.

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