Although the catalogue might not exactly be awash with the music of Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, there is a fair cross-section of his work from symphonies to songs well represented. With one exception which is his music for chamber ensembles in general and the string quartet in particular. That omission is corrected here by over an hour’s worth of quartets spanning more than forty years of Gibbs’ composing career. The performers are The Atchison Quartet whose leader Robert Atchison recorded the complete music for violin and piano by Gibbs for Guild which was recorded in 2010 (review). Atchison was also part of the London Piano Trio who recorded the trios and was artistic director of the Armstrong Gibbs festival back at the time I wrote that review. So clearly Atchison has as active a performing knowledge of this music as anyone.
Musicologist Nicholas Riddle provides the useful liner note although I imagine he winces at the typo “Ralph Vaughn [sic] Williams” that appears in a headline quote on the inside of the digipak sleeve. Riddle elaborates on the choice of music for this disc and it may surprise listeners who know much of Gibbs’ work to realise just how many quartets he actually wrote – according to Riddle there are twelve plus a further number which use a quartet as an accompanying group. The choice of those recorded here is; “because it brings to light so much about what was going on inside Gibbs at two really difficult times of his life.” I am not completely clear what is meant by that although I assume the events refer to the forced move from the family home in Danbury to the Lake District early in World War II and then in the late fifties the death of his wife after forty years marriage. To be honest I do not hear a great deal of stress or drama in any of this music – in fact the longest/most substantial work on the disc is also the earliest – the 1917 String Quartet in A minor which runs to nearly twenty one minutes.
As far as I know only one Gibbs quartet has ever been commercially recorded before – the great Griller Quartet recorded the Op.73 Quartet as long ago as 1933 – so this new collection is both welcome and overdue even if it does not include that enjoyable Op.73 work. Gibbs’ quartet writing covers his entire creative life with his Op.1 (not included here) a quartet and the late String Quartet in E minor written in 1958 [tracks 10-12] produced less than two years before his death aged seventy one. With the exception of the Three Pieces, the Atchison Quartet has elected to perform unpublished works which I imagine chimes with Riddle’s description of these as more personal or “inner” works. That said the 1917 String Quartet in A minor was written expressly for The London String Quartet in the light of the success they had performing his Op.7 Quartet in April 1917. Interestingly, Albert Sammons, the famed and great leader of the quartet left between Gibbs writing the quartet in April 1917 and its premiere in November the same year. That said I cannot hear anything in the writing for the first violin that could be directly construed as inspired by Sammons’ playing as such. What this Op.8 quartet demonstrates what could be considered both Gibbs’ strength and his ultimate weakness. The writing here and throughout is grateful and mellifluous as well as attractive. But this comes at the price of much if any real musical drama or conflict and little sense of Gibbs’ musical voice changing greatly across four decades represented on this disc.
Indeed by placing the Op.95 Quartet in C first on this disc this sense of sameness is emphasised by the following A minor Op.8 key being the relative minor of the Op.95 C so the works actually flow together especially when the Op.95 ends quite gently in an unambiguous C major before the Op.8 opens in an equally clear A minor. The Atchison Quartet was formed in 2015 with all four players very experienced across a wide spectrum of chamber playing. Hence the actual playing is predictably fine although the engineering and production adds little ‘glamour’ to the string sound as recorded here. If ultimately I am slightly disappointed I think this is because the music itself is less engaging than I was expecting. As I wrote when reviewing the music for violin and piano, I do enjoy much of Gibbs’ music – which would include the Op.73 quartet – but here there is a sense that the pastoralisms of which much English music of the 20th Century are accused are very much the defining mood. That said I find the Op.73 recorded by the Grillers to be a much more interesting, more elusive indeed complex work. That quartet won a prize – 3rd or 2nd according to the Armstrong Gibbs website depending on which page you read!, 2nd according to Riddle – in a Daily Telegraph competition in 1933 [Edric Cundell’s String Quartet No.2, also recorded by the Grillers, won anda young Benjamin Britten was commended].
Perhaps where this pastoral idiom works best is in the Three Pieces for String Quartet. Gibbs and his wife had been frequent visitors to the Lake District long before their enforced evacuation during the War. Hence in 1927 he wrote this lovely, brief [sub ten minute] three-part suite where each movement is given a specific title; Above Blea Tarn, Winster Valley and Loweswater: Calm after Storm respectively. These are musical watercolours which show Gibbs’ craftsmanship and skill to best effect. For sure they exhibit the modal, folk-influenced harmony and melodic shapes that define this style of English pastoralism but the small scale and attractive lyricism ensures they do not feel over extended or forced. The plainness of the engineering means the quartet has to work hard to achieve the warmth and radiance the music should achieve and would benefit from. The latest work offered here was, as mentioned, Gibbs’ last essay in the form and, as with all the works here, is in three movements where a slow central section is framed by two generally quicker movements. By 1958, aside from the loss of his wife, it is not too hard to imagine that Gibbs the composer sensed that his chosen musical path and idiom was very much not in sync with the post-war era. As such I think this quartet can be heard as a last reaffirmation of his musical creed and style expressed without any great anger or resentment but instead a kind of nostalgic backwards looking to times and people past. In that respect it is a rather poignant and touching piece of writing although again I feel the engineering could have given the strings a fraction more ‘glow’ to good effect. Listen to the sound afforded the (albeit larger) Guildhall Strings on their Hyperion disc which included the lovely Peacock Pie for piano and strings (or string quartet) to realise how sensuous Gibbs can sound.
Returning to the current recording, the disc is completed by another unknown/unpublished work – the brief [2:09] but touching A Birthday Greeting for Ralph Vaughan Williams written for the older composer on the occasion of his 70th birthday. Vaughan Williams had taught Gibbs that reflects at least the spirit of the older composer and his influence on his pupil. This is another unpublished work and thanks must go to whoever produced the performing editions for the quartet for this and indeed the bulk of the music on this disc. I know from my own experience just how time-consuming (but valuable) it is to produce and edit practical playable parts from composer manuscripts. Indeed, allowing for any personal concerns regarding the quality of the music itself, there is a distinct sense that this disc has been produced with great care and concern for the preservation and promotion of this always attractive if not necessarily top-drawer music.
Another prolific writer of string quartets – J B McEwen – offered the opinion that writing quartets gave the composer the discipline and rewards of ‘serious’ composition without the complications of trying to obtain satisfactory performances of larger format symphonies and the like which I suspect might have been a partial motivation for Gibbs too. While I have no doubt over the care and dedication that Gibbs poured into the works recorded here I struggle to hear the ‘inner’ depths that Riddle alludes to when directly comparing these works not just to the recorded Op.73 but also the other published quartets which I have in my own collection of sheet music. Certainly the Op.18 Quartet in E (No.3) written shortly after the Op.8 offered on this disc is its equal at least and as mentioned before the Op.73 is the equal of any presented here. There is also a published Op.74 Miniature Quartet which is deliberately and rather charmingly smaller-scaled. I rather like the Well-Tempered String Quartet’s description of Gibbs’ writing as “… sane wholesome music which is always poetic in feeling, individual in style without ever becoming aggressively modern[!] and always well laid out for the instruments.” This might be expressed in the language of the time [published by Novello in 1949] but the thought behind the description measures up well to this day.
There is an attractive booklet with a useful note about the composer and the music even is the information about each work is a little muddled. I am not wholly convinced by the argument of an “inner” group of works – for this to be valid it needs elaboration which might be beyond the remit of this booklet. However this remains a valuable disc that allows listeners to enjoy and appreciate the effective and attractive music of Armstrong Gibbs.