For any composer living in Malvern, as Alec Roth now does, the spirit of Elgar is always present. And like Elgar, who said music was all around us, Roth’s String Quartet No. 4 takes for its inspiration the evocative atmosphere of the Malvern Hills.
However, the quartet – commissioned by Malvern Concert Club with funds from The Kay Trust, and premiered most persuasively by the Allegri Quartet – is refreshingly free of the English pastoralism perpetuated by some present-day composers. Roth does inscribe the score with lines from ‘Vision of Piers Plowman,’ but these serve merely to hint at the quartet’s content and style.
So no bird songs, babbling brooks or folky tunes – and long-winded ruminations are definitely out. Instead, Roth adopts a minimalist approach, with repeated rhythms, gentle syncopations, bite-sized themes and modal harmonies employed to create mood and meaning.
It’s an attractively compact, modest work in which ideas progress with a formal logic that helps the listener anticipate what is coming next. For example, there’s a clear recapitulation in the first movement; and the drifting wisps of melody that open the third (misty mornings, perhaps?) are revisited at its close.
Even more satisfying is the elegiac finale, where ingenuous note-patterns and a rising 5-note ostinato suggest bigger things to come, but instead gently evaporate into nothingness, ending with the haunting glissando harmonics we heard at the start.