Edward Elgar wrote to his future wife, Alice, on September 18, 1917: "Everything good and nice and clean and fresh and sweet is far away -- never to return." Depressed by World War I, feeling old age's tentacles creep up on him (he was 62), he also knew that the listeners of the age of clamor had already begun to regard his quintessentially Edwardian music as an anachronism. So, deeply upset, he poured his soul into the four great works of 1918, the last year of the war -- the cello concerto, violin sonata, string quartet, and piano quintet. All were written in a minor key and mirror Elgar's feelings of horror, madness, lamentation, unrest, uncertainty, nostalgia, and also the little joys that make every kind of darkness bearable. Woven around a "questioning motif", the E minor string quartet and A minor piano quintet recorded here were premiered in London's Wigmore Hall on May 21, 1919. They were Elgar's last significant compositions. Afterward, he called it a day and retired from music, dying lonely and cancer-ridden in 1934.
The piano quintet is particularly interesting. The eery first movement is said to have been inspired by "the reminiscence of sinister trees", in Alice Elgar's words, referring to a cluster of lightning-mangled trees near Elgar's cottage in Sussex. Legend has it that they were the gnarled figures of a settlement of Spanish monks blasted by heaven as punishment for their "impious rites". Drawing on the myth, Elgar wove in a couple of haunting Spanish motifs, including a place where the first violin imitates a guitar by playing in pizzicato. The quintet's dark opening movement is followed by a soothing adagio, definitely inspired by sunnier memories and places, which gives way in turn to a thunderous andante-allegro in a major key (which I think is rather overbearing, coming right after the quiet second movement).
What's interesting about this performance is that the Maggini Quartet uses 17th- and 18th-century instruments (hence the name -- Giovanni Paolo Maggini was a Brescian violin-maker of the early 1600s.) It has a neat effect, though you can't always tell the difference. Kudos, Naxos.