FRICKER: String Quartets Nos. 1-3. Adagio & Scherzo / Villiers Quartet / Naxos 8.571374
Perhaps I’m assuming too much here, but I’ll place a small wager (five fish) that you’ve never heard of composer Peter Racine Fricker before. I never have, but apparently he was a British-born composer who spent the second half of his life in the United States. In 1949, he won the last Koussevitzky Prize while Koussevitzky himself was still music director of the Boston Symphony with his Symphony No. 1. The first of his three string quartets dates from 1948, the second from 1952-53 and the third from 1976 (he died in 1990, aged 70).
Fricker took an unusual path towards being a modern classical composer, having initially studied the organ and playing the more conservative music of Buxtehude, Bach and Handel, among others, but he was fascinated by counterpoint and made it his business to incorporate it even into his modern scores. He served in the British Army during World War II, and it was during this time that he decided to become a composer. The Adagio & Scherzo which concludes this album was his earliest work of some substance (1943); this is its world premiere recording.
After his honorable discharge from the Army, Fricker began studying composition at Morley College, and it was here that he met and was influenced by Matyás Sieber. Sieber, who published an analytical guide to Bartók’s string quartets in 1945, encouraged young Fricker to study them closely, thus it shouldn’t be surprising to hear a close stylistic similarity to Bartók in Fricker’s own first quartet. The first work he wrote that he considered of high quality was his Wind Quintet, which was happily adopted by French hornist Dennis Brain, who made a live recording of it. This was followed by the first String Quartet and then the First Symphony, which won the Koussevitzky Prize but was not actually premiered until 1950, at the Cheltenham Festival.
Listening to the first quartet, one hears a very serious composer writing a one-movement work of considerable density but also of rigorous logic. My one caveat about his work is that it seems a bit over-studied, i.e., there are few surprises in the score. It is cerebral rather than surprising music. This, of course, doesn’t make it a poor or inferior work, but I personally prefer music with a little more inspiration than perspiration in it.
Or, perhaps, it is the performance and not the music? It’s difficult to tell, although it certainly sounds as if the Villiers Quartet us giving it their all. The Second Quartet struck me as more interesting, particularly the roiling, slightly menacing second movement with its edgy-sounding counterpoint in the cello line. Despite a tender moment at around 4:25, followed by viola pizzicato while the violins play around it to the end of the movement, there is an unquestionably edgy feel to the music. This mood continues into the “Adagio,” which is the last movement.
The third quartet is, by admission, the most severe and least emotional of the three, written in 1976 and unabashedly dedicated to Elliott Carter, whose own music is cold and clinical. This is its world premiere recording. Although it has more feeling than any Carter work I’ve ever heard, it is still rather hung up on compositional form and technique rather than communication, although the second of its five movements, “Allegro feroce,” harks back to the second quartet with its strong ostinato downbow effects on the viola and cello, providing a strong syncopated rhythm over which the violins scream in protest. The fourth-movement “Allegro inquieto” is also rather interesting, again using syncopated figures beneath the violins but not in quite as aggressive a manner. The music is written in a serial manner but not strictly in the 12-tone row.
The album ends with the early Adagio and Scherzo, also a world premiere recording. It’s interesting to hear how his musical mind was working prior to meeting Sieber and studying Bartók. Fricker was already thinking in terms of a more cerebral approach towards music, somewhat modern in tonality but not as dense in either scoring or approach. The musical lines move rather fluidly back and forth between each other two violins and the viola while the cello remains a “ground bass,” sometimes playing ostinato and sometimes counterpoint. This technique he continued into the later quartets, but there is also a more lyrical quality in this piece than in either of the three full-length quartets.
I was particularly pleased with the sonics on this recording, clear and crisp with just a bit of ambience around the instruments to give them color. Overall, a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a neglected if not quite forgotten composer.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley