It seems a little strange that I have waited so long to write my first string quartet, the ultimate challenge for any composer; but the right opportunity never seemed to have presented itself, that is until now.
A couple of years ago Paul Hindmarsh asked me if I would write a work specially for the Manchester Mid-day Concert Society’s centenary, and kindly gave me the luxury of deciding ‘what’ and ‘who for’! One of the fondest memories I have of my time at the RNCM was helping to nurture the next generation of professional chamber music performers. The Navarra Quartet was one such group, formed under the inspirational tutelage of Christopher Rowland. They performed at a European Conservatoires Chamber Music Festival in St Petersburg whilst still students and made a big impression. Since then they have embarked on a highly successful career, and so it seemed natural for me to want to write my first quartet especially for them.
In thinking about how to embark upon the compositional process, I decided to return to classical principles: the late quartets of Beethoven and the quartets of Bartok (which I have always thought to be a natural progression from those of Beethoven). Thus, the use of extended sonata, variation and rondo forms (including cyclic form) became the backbone of the architecture of the work, together with a closely argued contrapuntal approach to the instrumental writing.
The first movement opens with a dramatic gesture, a series of terse chords, defined by rhythmic punctuations, an idea which returns at pivotal moments in the movement, as well as the end of the quartet. This is quickly followed by the main allegro of the movement, which develops the previous opening chords contrapuntally, before a more lyrical second subject is announced – here the Schubertian model of dramatic contrast in the musical material seemed to be apposite. The music proceeds in a clearly defined route via a development section that reaches its climax with a return of the opening chordal gestures, but instead of the usual ensuing recapitulation the process of continuous development (in the manner of Bartok) results in presenting earlier material via a rather manic fugue (including a reference to the BACH cypher). Eventually, a contracted reference to the lyrical second subject leads to a final gesture of the opening chords, which close the movement, albeit in an unresolved manner.
The second movement is sub-titled ‘Fantasia on a Chorale’ (after the English 16th and 17th century models) and adopts a rather loose variation form, where fragments of a chorale (never heard in its complete form), gradually unfold with textural embellishment throughout the movement. There are cadenza-like passages for cello and viola, and a menacing march, where violins are prominent, but the movement ends serenely in modal E minor with violins ‘sighing’ a repeated pattern from the chorale, and gradually fading into the distance.
The final movement is a boisterously energetic rondo, with syncopated rhythms and accents prominent. There are two contrasting episodes, the first a broad, sweeping melody announced on violins, the second a helter-skelter fugue, the subject of which is derived from the rising four-note cell heard at the opening of the movement. The music heads towards its peroration with a return to the very opening gesture of the quartet, this time ‘resolved’ through the sunlight of G major tonality. Thus the journey from darkness to light (a major preoccupation in my recent music) is complete.
It is an extraordinary work, both gritty and serene. Its three movements are packed with ideas – fugues, variations, cadenzas, a chorale and a march – and he never gives you a dull moment…. The elements that most entranced me … were the sheer singing beauty of the first movement’s ethereal second theme …, the nostalgic atmosphere of the central fantasia, with its tenderness and mellow, modal harmonies, and the vivid reminiscences in texture and rhythm, as much as in pitch shape, as the third movement draws several threads together and soars to a sunlit resolution…. I hope the Gregson quartet is soon recorded and long to hear it again.
Robert Beale, Manchester Evening News (January 2015)
I found that, despite many stark passages, the quartet is ultimately a progression from darkness to light, or from pessimism to optimism. It deserves a place among the most important British quartets of all time.
John France, MusicWeb International (May 2022)
Bookending this selection are his string quartets, a medium that Gregson has described as ‘the composer’s ultimate challenge’. The First Quartet (2014) faces such a challenge head on, its first movement abounding in jagged and dislocated gestures, with a wistful secondary theme whose belated return provides an affecting close. With aspects of march and burlesque before its concluding lullaby, the ‘Fantasia on a Chorale’ is the highlight …
Richard Whitehouse, Gramophone (July 2022)
String Quartet No.1 (2014) was written for the Navarra String Quartet and they have the full measure of this adroit and versatile score. In the closely argued opening movement, the terse, declamatory main material, presented at the outset, is sufficiently compelling to fuel much of the rest of the movement and the relaxed, tenderly lyrical secondary theme, introduced by first violin over murmuring triplet figurations, makes a notably effective dramatic foil. Entitled ‘Fantasia on a Chorale’, the central slow movement is deeply introspective series of mediative variants on an archaic-sounding idea. The players respond sensitively to the movement’s changing moods, while also preserving a keen sense of the overarching structure. The lively concluding rondo brings the work to a bright and optimistic conclusion and the musicians find an ideal tempo, energetic yet sufficiently poised to articulate every detail.
Paul Conway, Musical Opinion (July 2022)