Rawsthorne was not a string player, and listening to these quartets one feels they were conceived for four musical lines rather than for four stringed instruments. It’s rare for them to use any techniques more adventurous than pizzicato, resulting in less interesting textures than in, say, Bartók’s or Shostakovich’s quartets.
Bartok’s last quartet was premiered the same year Rawsthorne wrote his First – 1939 – and there’s much in the two earliest works on the disc that brings his string music to mind. The Maggini approaches Quartet no.1, a theme with six variations, with a light and sensitive touch. Leader Laurence Jackson makes the most of the expressive intervals in the Andante appassionato, while in Variation no.4 (Adagio, poco misterioso) cellist Michal Kaznowski’s melody is held down by tense, shimmering discords high in the upper strings, enhanced by the disc’s bright, resonant recorded sound.
With Quartets nos.2 and 3 Rawsthorne’s language becomes denser – this is pure, concentrated, unremittingly serious music, not a gimmick in sight. The four instruments are now equal protagonists, and the mood more cerebral.
The Theme and Variations for two violins of 1937, the work that really launched Rawsthorne as a composer, is the most engaging piece on the disc. Jackson and David Angel, natural musical partners after their twelve years with the Maggini, demonstrate impressive ensemble and intricate interplay in variations such as the ‘Scherzetto’. There’s some moving playing in the ‘Notturno’ of the expressive melody over sul ponticello scrubbing, and the ‘Ostinato’ is exciting stuff.