quatuor à cordes

Benedict Mason’s String Quartet No. 1, is one of the composer’s earliest major statements, and a most extraordinary piece. A work of heroic proportions (it runs more than thirty-six minutes), it stands in sharp contrast to its much terser successor String Quartet No. 2. The relationship of the two works is reminiscent of that between Brian Ferneyhough’s first two quartets, although aesthetically speaking, the two composers are poles apart. Indeed, both composers are “complexists” of the most radical type, with Ferneyhough’s Sonatas of 1967 relating to the Fantasias of Purcell much as Mason’s piece does to a past yet more wide-ranging, and just as unmistakeably English.

Mason’s is a maverick genius. The closest relatives to his String Quartet No.1 are not English at all, but rather the two quartets of Janácek. Like Janácek’s pair, Mason’s quartet contains music suggestive of the rhythms and gestures of speech its score brimming with “scenic” or “behavioural” instructions to the players. Here is music which boldly eschews the requirements of what still remains the “lingua franca” of the would-be avant-garde: dissonance and chromatic saturation. Yet Mason’s String Quartet No.1 is a piece of music as bold and “advanced” as any in its rhythmic and polyphonic complexity, its instrumental technique and overall sonority, and its large scale formal mastery.

The Quartet’s unique poetic fascination lies in its “estranged” reminiscences of things past. Here are the lost paradises of the Elizabethan String Fancies and their country roots, the drones on hurdy-gurdy open fifths, and the elation of an extended and technically perilous game on harmonics. Mason reminds one of Michael Tippett. Both predominantly diatonic modernists rooted in English tradition both learned and popular, they share the rarest of God-sent gifts: vision, creating glimpses of rapturous beauty which leave the listener breathless and fulfilled at the same time. (© Harry Halbreich 1994)