Moeran: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (CD Review)

Also, Fantasy Quartet; Piano Trio. Vanbrugh Quartet (Gregory Ellis and Elizabeth Charleson, violins; Simon Aspell, viola: Christopher Marwood, cello; Nicholas Daniel, Oboe; Joachim Piano Trio (Rebecca Hirsch, violin; Caroline Dearnley, cello;  John Lenehan, piano). ASV CD DCA 1045.

By Karl W. Nehring

As many music lovers everywhere are still pretty much staying home these days in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this may be a good time to consider listening to some music that is easy on the ears and soothing to the soul. This recording of four pastoral chamber music compositions by Moeran, to which I have been listening quite often lately, may be just what the doctor ordered for these stressful times.

Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950) was an English composer with Irish roots. Like many English composers of his era, Moeran was a student of folk melodies and quite a lover of the outdoors – the scenes and sounds of the countryside. If you are a fan of some of pastoral works by British composers such as Vaughan Williams and Bax, you would do well to investigate the music of Moeran. Although his output was not extensive, it includes some wonderful music that deserves to be more widely performed and recorded. (As a starting point, you might want to take a quick look at reviews of his Symphony in G minor and Sinfonietta on Naxos and his Violin and Cello Concertos on Chandos in the Classical Candor archive.)

This ASV recording presents four works that display his gift for crafting melodies that stimulate the ear while soothing the soul. First on the docket is his String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, which he completed in 1921. From the opening measures, Moeran is inviting the listener to experience the at once calming and energizing sights, sounds, and smells of nature (well, perhaps not all of the smells). The music just flows, at times contemplative, at times restless, just as we might feel as we take a long hike through meadows and glens. The second movement sounds as though it has folk melodies as its basis, as though our hike has brought us into a small village where there is some singing to be heard through open windows. The third movement increases the energy and intensity level while bringing in elements of dance and merrymaking. This may not be the most profound of string quartets, but it certainly has a place among the more lovely.

Ernest John Moeran
Next up is Moeran's String Quartet No. 2 in E flat. According to the liner notes, the numbering system of the quartets is misleading. There are some indications in the historical record that Moeran wrote four quartets, but what we now have as No. 1 was probably actually the fourth of those, with what we have today as No. 2, which was not published until 1956, well after the composer's death, was either the second or third of the four. Confused? Don't worry, just enjoy the music and be glad we have what we have. This quartet is in only two movements, but does not sound incomplete, as the second movement shifts mood and style as it goes along, in some ways making it sound like it contains more than one movement. The first movement is reminiscent of the opening movement of the previous quartet, with that same pastoral, folk music based kind of sound. The second movement starts slowly for several measures, then develops a songlike quality, with some lovely lines for the viola. The mood of this movement then shifts to a more dance-like feeling, then more folksy, then back to the dance, ending with exuberant energy.

The Fantasy Quartet for oboe, violin, viola, and cello dates from 1948. It is in one movement, lasting nearly 14 minutes in this rendition, featuring oboist Nicholas Daniel. Inevitably, because of the sound of the oboe standing out from among the sound of the strings, the piece comes across as more of a reduced-forces oboe concerto than a true quartet. Still, it is a pleasant piece, at times lively, at times more subdued, but melodic and enjoyable throughout.

Vanbrugh Quartet
The final piece on the album, the most grand and least pastoral, is the Piano Trio in D, was first composed in 1920, first performed in 1921, then revised before finally being published in 1925. The first of its four movements opens with the piano as the featured performer (It is a piano trio, after all), playing exuberantly with the strings providing accompaniment. Although the mood may be less pastoral, there is still an underlying folk influence that makes its presence felt. The more peaceful second movement finds the cello taking the opening lead, then the violin, still with an underlying feeling of folk tunes. The piano gets some time in the spotlight before the strings reclaim the lead and the movement comes to a restful conclusion. The third movement turns the energy level back up, with the piano once again asserting itself in the lead role. There are some lovely passages where the strings play what sound like folk melodies that are then echoed by the piano. Later, the tempo slows down and the music becomes more reflective, piano and cello, then piano and violin, the movement ending with an energetic flourish. The final movement kicks off with the violin in the lead. The overall tone is similar to the opening movement, but with more contribution by the strings. There are some quiet passages before the energy returns at the end.

The sound quality is just fine. Perhaps not "audiophile grade" in terms of imaging or ambience, but certainly more than adequate to the task of conveying the beauty of the music. With four satisfying compositions that total more than 77 minutes of music and informative liner notes, this release makes a persuasive case for more widespread appreciation of the music of a largely overlooked composer, especially for those seeking musical balm in troubled times.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa