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 Recording of the Week  Hamilton Harty’s Chamber Music

A real rarity this week in the form of chamber music from the Irish composer Herbert Hamilton Harty (1879-1941).

I had first come across the name Harty as a conductor – he was principal conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester from 1920-1933 and made some important early recordings, including a very fine Elgar Enigma Variations, an excellent Walton First Symphony, and also various concertos with soloists like Solomon and Szigeti.

Herbert Hamilton Harty
Herbert Hamilton Harty

As a composer most of his works were performed once or twice in his lifetime and then promptly forgotten, and through much of the twentieth century it seems only his arrangements of Handel’s Fireworks and Water Music remained in the repertoire. Over the past thirty or so years the growth in authentic performance practice has meant that these are now the rarity, but thanks to Chandos and then Naxos his orchestral works at least have become much more widely known.

So it was with much interest that I embraced Hyperion’s new recording (released today) of his two String Quartets and a Piano Quintet. Written in the early 1900s around the time that Harty moved from his native Ireland to London, these are all early works but show a composer with much imagination and impressive craft. Listening to the quartets I suppose Mendelssohn is the composer who most springs to my mind: full of charm, texturally quite rich much of the time, frequent rhythmic flamboyance and lots of good tunes. The Goldner String Quartet’s refined playing and natural musical affinity with the stylistic demands makes for very enjoyable performances.

The Piano Quintet (written in 1904) is a really impressive work. Harty was a fine pianist himself and was regarded throughout his life as one of the finest accompanists of his generation. His quintet is on a grand scale with the models of Schumann and Brahms clearly in mind. After a bold and imposing opening movement, the short scherzo, characterised by folk-like pentatonic theme, provides excellent contrast. The slow movement is undoubtedly the emotional core of the work with big sweeping tunes and frequent octave doubling in both piano and strings leading to impressive climaxes, before a life-affirming finale with frequent exotic surprises (both melodically and harmonically) keep the listener’s attention right to the end.

Recorded in Potton Hall in Suffolk (which incidentally is currently for sale if you have a couple of million to spare!), the sound is rich and colourful and the balance between the piano and strings is just right. Australian pianist Piers Lane plays superbly and has an impressive ability to switch often quite suddenly between bold statements, rippling accompaniments, and sudden flashy outbursts. They all play with complete musical conviction and all these works (but particularly the Piano Quintet) warrant repeated listening.

The music spills just onto two discs, but Hyperion sensibly price it as one, and as usual sound samples are available via the links below. The printed music hasn’t been published, which is a pity as this is just the sort of repertoire that I’m sure a good amateur string quartet would enjoy getting stuck into. Hopefully that will change with time, but for now there is plenty to enjoy with the CD alone.

Hamilton Harty: String Quartets & Piano Quintet

Goldner String Quartet with Piers Lane (piano)

Available Format: CD