CENTER: String Quartets

Toccata Classics 

There’s a unison theme in the opening bars of Ronald Center’s String Quartet No 1 that sums up the impressions of the Aberdeenshire composer often given by those who knew him. It’s a plaintive 6-note motif filled with thoughtfulness and seriousness, mildly unorthodox and kindly, but masking potentially darker thoughts that lurk under the surface. 

As the instruments divide, the harmonies develop an angular complexity before releasing a cautious joie de vivre. At this point, propulsive rhythmic ostinati are the engine room of a music steeped in early 20th century European influence. Bartok and Shostakovich come immediately to mind, which is why Center (1913-73) was so often referred to as “the Scottish Bartok”. It’s a fair and unarguable comparison, but to pigeon-hole him simply as an imitator is to underestimate Center’s genuine individuality. 

A number of years ago that might have been difficult to illustrate. But with Toccata Classics now adding the second volume to its survey of Center’s music, this time featuring the three string quartets (the first was of his piano music), we have greater opportunity to assess its worth. The performers are The Fejes Quartet, led by RSNO assistant leader Tamás Fejes with musicians connected to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

These three works belong to Center’s maturer years, the 1950s and ‘60s, by which time he had given up a brief career school teaching in Huntly to concentrate on private tuition and composition. There is a dry, almost formulaic strain running through the First Quartet that makes it the least personable of the three, as if Center hasn’t yet fully mastered the art of self-regulation, allowing ideas to outstay their welcome. Where he allows wit to enter the equation (the scherzo-like pizazz of the second movement), or expresses himself with such haunting sorrow as in the slow movement, a truer, more probing personality emerges.

In the Second Quartet from the early ‘60s an even greater freedom of expression makes its presence felt. The Vivace second movement alone is a joy, with fiery references to Scots jigs and hornpipes, but equally conversant with the comforting pastoral harmonies of, say, Vaughan Williams. The finale is wonderfully rumbustious, its dry stabbing Celtic exuberance ridiculed brilliantly à la Shostakovich.

The String Quartet No 3 (1967), rather like Beethoven’s Op 131, is set out on seven shorter moments. It is also the most condensed musically of the three quartets, Center now applying far greater self-discipline to the pace and development of his thematic material, and the impact is immediate. There is real emotional bite, a sense of completeness in its relative terseness, and a trenchant resoluteness in the pounding drones of the final evaporating bars which this performance fully embraces. The case for Center is well made.

Ken Walton