HINTON: String Quintet. Sarah Leonard, soprano; Hagdish Mistry, violin; Marcus Barcham-Stevens, violin; Levine Andrade, viola; Michael Stirling, cello; Corrado Canonici, double bass.
Altarus AIR-CD-9066 (3) (3 CDs) {DDD} TT: 169:21

Pack a lunch. You have to wonder about a string quintet nearly three hours long and the mind that produced it. Unless it's an obvious, no-contest masterpiece, performances will likely come along twice a century and in the case of an obvious masterpiece, once in a blue moon. As we know, Beethoven kicked off the longer-than-usual with the Eroica and Wagner the longer-than-that. Both men tended to believe that everything they said was interesting. In each case, they were often, even mostly, right. But let's be brutal. How many Beethovens or Wagners show up, even at Alistair Hinton's old stomping grounds, the Guildhall School? Hinton spent at least six years on his quintet. It took about thirty years from the time of his initial inspiration to reach this recording. He has risked much of his life on this work.

Stating the total length misleads a bit. Up until the last movement, the quintet clocks in at less than an hour -- long, but not unreasonably so. The last movement runs to slightly more than two hours. Still, the important question remains: how good is the result? Before I answer that question, I want to describe the work in general as accurately as possible and to reveal my own prejudices. The work takes as its inspiration early tonal Schoenberg of the Chamber Symphonies and the second string quartet. The artistic grandfather of the idiom is the Wagner of the Siegfried-Idyl. I concede that Hinton has pulled off a compositional feat. The movements, at least the first four, cohere, rather than natter. The outlines of the formal construction are very clear -- a sonata movement, a scherzo, a theme-and-variations adagio, another scherzo, and a four-part ending. I must admit, however, that (excepting Wagner, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, and maybe a couple of others) the musical language fails to get my heart to beat any faster. I tend to view most of its practitioners as composers with nothing especially interesting to say, however grammatically well they say it.

Nevertheless, all the real risk of the quintet does come down to the gargantuan finale. Inspired to some extent by the "Litanei" movement of the Schoenberg second string quartet (also for strings and soprano solo), it begins, like its inspiration, with a long introduction which plays with the themes of the previous movements. At least, Hinton's liner notes tell me so and it does sound that way. I don't know for sure because
1. My attention span -- the ability to remember all that matter so long ago -- is less than the piece requires. Also, the trap of Hinton's idiom is generally that all themes tend to sound alike.
2. My bladder isn't up to sitting for so long.
3. I have a life and obligations other than listening to this. Honestly, it took me a couple of days just to hear it once.
At any rate, the music moves to a series of songs with extensive interludes. The texts are mostly terrible, in that School of Madame Blavatsky language (writing "thou," for example, when the writer naturally uses "you") that talks of "vision" to cover up the pharisaic public self-congratulation of the speaker that he is not like Other Men. One excerpt from the god-awful Norman Douglas will suffice.


Consider well your neighbor,
what an imbecile he is.
Then ask yourself
whether it be worth while
paying any attention
to what he thinks of you.
. . .
Therefore the sage will go his way,
prepared to find himself
growing ever more out of sympathy
with vulgar trends of opinion . . .

 

It irritates the hell out of me, and this note gets harped on for quite a while. Furthermore, Hinton really isn't a distinguished melodist. The soprano part more or less noodles around. Again, these settings might be based on the matter of previous movements, but I can't tell because I can't remember the previous movements in enough detail. However, a triple fugue, inaugurated with a theme based on the main idea of the fourth-movement scherzo, interrupts. The subjects are mostly very long. Indeed, the first entry of the first subject goes on so long, that at one point I wondered whether it was about to turn into a Bach-chaconne passage for solo violin. Anyway, the fugue is magnificent, speaking with great cumulative power. For me, this is undoubtedly the finest section of the entire quintet, and the inspiration doesn't flag all the way to the end of the movement. The fugue winds down, and the soprano returns. This second part contains an idea that sounds like it comes straight from one of the love motifs of Wagner's Ring. It's pretty startling because it sounds so little like the other ideas of the score, and it does appear at an appropriate spot: a passage where Berlioz talks of love and music. It's not bothersome, and I don't think it plagiarism. It's what Vaughan Williams would call "real cribbing" -- where one composer begins to think with the mind of another.
I've noticed that real visionaries -- for example, Isaiah, St. John, Dante -- don't often talk about themselves, but concentrate on setting down the vision, because to them the vision is more important than the fact that they have it, more important than the self. In the final section, Hinton reveals himself as a true visionary, with music positively radiant. In fact, it conquers all the difficulties raised by everything that's come before and casts the previous movements in a whole new light. This piece needs many listenings. I have to say ultimately that Hinton's music isn't my cup of tea, but that doesn't mean that he's not anybody's. I think someone far more into late nineteenth-century chromaticism has a very good chance of discovering something wonderful.

The musicians pull off miracles. Mistry is a formidably intelligent violinist. Sarah Leonard negotiates Hinton's slide-whistle vocal writing (requiring that she sing both Líu and Turandot) with real communication. The ensemble manages to slim down and clarify Hinton's normally thick textures. The fact that they get music of such long spans to cohere is nothing short of astounding, even if one doesn't consider the fact that these guys don't play together regularly. Hinton says that the preparation and the recording sessions themselves (a mere two days for nearly three hours of music) counts as "the most thrilling experience of my musical life." No reason to doubt him.


S.G.S. (May 2003)

HINTON: String Quintet. Sarah Leonard, soprano; Hagdish Mistry, violin; Marcus Barcham-Stevens, violin; Levine Andrade, viola; Michael Stirling, cello; Corrado Canonici, double bass.
Altarus AIR-CD-9066 (3) (3 CDs) {DDD} TT: 169:21

 

 

 
Pack a lunch. You have to wonder about a string quintet nearly three hours long and the mind that produced it. Unless it's an obvious, no-contest masterpiece, performances will likely come along twice a century and in the case of an obvious masterpiece, once in a blue moon. As we know, Beethoven kicked off the longer-than-usual with the Eroica and Wagner the longer-than-that. Both men tended to believe that everything they said was interesting. In each case, they were often, even mostly, right. But let's be brutal. How many Beethovens or Wagners show up, even at Alistair Hinton's old stomping grounds, the Guildhall School? Hinton spent at least six years on his quintet. It took about thirty years from the time of his initial inspiration to reach this recording. He has risked much of his life on this work.

Stating the total length misleads a bit. Up until the last movement, the quintet clocks in at less than an hour -- long, but not unreasonably so. The last movement runs to slightly more than two hours. Still, the important question remains: how good is the result? Before I answer that question, I want to describe the work in general as accurately as possible and to reveal my own prejudices. The work takes as its inspiration early tonal Schoenberg of the Chamber Symphonies and the second string quartet. The artistic grandfather of the idiom is the Wagner of the Siegfried-Idyl. I concede that Hinton has pulled off a compositional feat. The movements, at least the first four, cohere, rather than natter. The outlines of the formal construction are very clear -- a sonata movement, a scherzo, a theme-and-variations adagio, another scherzo, and a four-part ending. I must admit, however, that (excepting Wagner, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, and maybe a couple of others) the musical language fails to get my heart to beat any faster. I tend to view most of its practitioners as composers with nothing especially interesting to say, however grammatically well they say it.

Nevertheless, all the real risk of the quintet does come down to the gargantuan finale. Inspired to some extent by the "Litanei" movement of the Schoenberg second string quartet (also for strings and soprano solo), it begins, like its inspiration, with a long introduction which plays with the themes of the previous movements. At least, Hinton's liner notes tell me so and it does sound that way. I don't know for sure because
1. My attention span -- the ability to remember all that matter so long ago -- is less than the piece requires. Also, the trap of Hinton's idiom is generally that all themes tend to sound alike.
2. My bladder isn't up to sitting for so long.
3. I have a life and obligations other than listening to this. Honestly, it took me a couple of days just to hear it once.
At any rate, the music moves to a series of songs with extensive interludes. The texts are mostly terrible, in that School of Madame Blavatsky language (writing "thou," for example, when the writer naturally uses "you") that talks of "vision" to cover up the pharisaic public self-congratulation of the speaker that he is not like Other Men. One excerpt from the god-awful Norman Douglas will suffice.


Consider well your neighbor,
what an imbecile he is.
Then ask yourself
whether it be worth while
paying any attention
to what he thinks of you.
. . .
Therefore the sage will go his way,
prepared to find himself
growing ever more out of sympathy
with vulgar trends of opinion . . .

 

It irritates the hell out of me, and this note gets harped on for quite a while. Furthermore, Hinton really isn't a distinguished melodist. The soprano part more or less noodles around. Again, these settings might be based on the matter of previous movements, but I can't tell because I can't remember the previous movements in enough detail. However, a triple fugue, inaugurated with a theme based on the main idea of the fourth-movement scherzo, interrupts. The subjects are mostly very long. Indeed, the first entry of the first subject goes on so long, that at one point I wondered whether it was about to turn into a Bach-chaconne passage for solo violin. Anyway, the fugue is magnificent, speaking with great cumulative power. For me, this is undoubtedly the finest section of the entire quintet, and the inspiration doesn't flag all the way to the end of the movement. The fugue winds down, and the soprano returns. This second part contains an idea that sounds like it comes straight from one of the love motifs of Wagner's Ring. It's pretty startling because it sounds so little like the other ideas of the score, and it does appear at an appropriate spot: a passage where Berlioz talks of love and music. It's not bothersome, and I don't think it plagiarism. It's what Vaughan Williams would call "real cribbing" -- where one composer begins to think with the mind of another.
I've noticed that real visionaries -- for example, Isaiah, St. John, Dante -- don't often talk about themselves, but concentrate on setting down the vision, because to them the vision is more important than the fact that they have it, more important than the self. In the final section, Hinton reveals himself as a true visionary, with music positively radiant. In fact, it conquers all the difficulties raised by everything that's come before and casts the previous movements in a whole new light. This piece needs many listenings. I have to say ultimately that Hinton's music isn't my cup of tea, but that doesn't mean that he's not anybody's. I think someone far more into late nineteenth-century chromaticism has a very good chance of discovering something wonderful.

The musicians pull off miracles. Mistry is a formidably intelligent violinist. Sarah Leonard negotiates Hinton's slide-whistle vocal writing (requiring that she sing both Líu and Turandot) with real communication. The ensemble manages to slim down and clarify Hinton's normally thick textures. The fact that they get music of such long spans to cohere is nothing short of astounding, even if one doesn't consider the fact that these guys don't play together regularly. Hinton says that the preparation and the recording sessions themselves (a mere two days for nearly three hours of music) counts as "the most thrilling experience of my musical life." No reason to doubt him.


S.G.S. (May 2003)