Norman Stinchcombe reviews CDs by the Takács Quartet and Mark Bebbington playing Vaughan Williams

Dutilleux, Hough, Ravel: Takács Quartet (Hyperion) ★★★★★

Is there no end to Stephen Hough’s talents? Brilliant pianist, stylish essayist, novelist, exhibited abstract artist and composer. His String Quartet No.1 was premiered in 2021 and is a fine piece, integrated in a perfect programme with two masterpieces of French quartet writing; Ravel’s in F major and Dutilleux’s ‘Ainsi la Nuit’ (‘Thus the Night’). Hough’s quartet is titled ‘Les six recontres’ (‘The six encounters’) with a punning reference to the early twentieth century group of French composers ‘Les Six’. The spirit of the group’s humorous, ironic and occasionally madcap member Francis Poulenc haunts the quartet’s six movements. There’s a bustling, bristling walk down the boulevard, a dreamy melancholy stroll in the park, colourful excursions to the hotel and theatre, a serene meditation in church – Hough shares Poulenc’s quirky humour and devout Catholicism – rounded off with a high-spirited march. The Takács Quartet’s playing is as highly accomplished as ever, alert to Hough’s quicksilver changes of mood; the muted strings in church, the hotel’s snappy fugato and the march’s catchy moto perpetuo. The Ravel – an irresistibly brilliant second movement in the composer’s beloved Spanish-style – and Dutilleux’s nocturnal moods and shades are equally satisfying in the Takács’s masterful hands.

Vaughan Williams: Bebbington, Riddell, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Wetton (Resonus Classics) ★★★★

In the flood of discs celebrating last year’s 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ birth, this late-comer is one of the finest and includes three rarities. The fourth is the ever-popular ‘The Lark Ascending’ but with a difference, appearing in its original 1920 version for violin and piano played by the RPO’s leader Duncan Riddell and Mark Bebbington. It’s a refreshing change, with lighter textures and Riddell’s mellifluous lark ascending into a more austere sky. Abigail Fenna partners Bebbington in the slight but pleasant ‘Romance for Viola and Piano’. The RPO’s front desk players join Bebbington in the Piano Quintet in C minor which opens with a passionate and fiery Allegro – extra weight given by the composer’s use of a double bass – and concludes with a colourful set of variations, sparklingly played here. The final work is the most interesting, the ‘Fantasia on the “Old 104th” Psalm Tune’. Vaughan Williams' starting point was a 17th-century tune by Thomas Ravenscroft but the end product was a hybrid work for piano, orchestra and chorus premiered at Gloucester Cathedral in 1950. Conductor Hilary Davan Wetton balances the disparate forces well, with crisp singing from the The City of London Choir and Bebbington resplendent in the quasi-improvisatory piano part.

Norman Stinchcombe

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