MUSICAL OPINION (1):
John Ramsay, a Professor of Geology by profession, is also—on the basis of this new CD—a highly talented composer. The informative booklet notes tell us that he has also composed orchestral music, and these four quartets are very well described as ‘excellent examples of post-modernist music, employing no artificial boundaries'—a comment with which one can surely agree. They exhibit genuine qualities of string quartet writing, and all four—quite recent compositions—are most accessible and deserving of attention.
They are by no means superficial or in any way ‘amateur' compositions. Much of this music would not be abjured by any self-respecting ‘professional' composer today—and they are all such as to commend themselves to the intelligent music-lover. Of the four quartets, I was particularly impressed by the Second, and I look forward to hearing more of this gifted composer's other music. Strongly recommended. ****** (five stars awarded)
MUSICAL OPINION (2):
I knew nothing of John Ramsay, born in London in 1931, until I received this issue for review, but I hope very much to encounter more of his music, as soon as maybe. These four string quartets are relatively recent compositions, written between 2001-9, but they constitute a notable contribution to the British quartet repertoire, music by a voice unafraid to call upon what might too-easily and too-unknowingly be termed ‘traditional' values but which is well worth getting to know.
There is nothing at all in the composition of these works that lies outside the natural writing for the instruments – or so it seems to me – and Ramsay is unafraid to quote keys in their titles: No. 1 in D minor, No. 2 in E minor (subtitled Shackleton ), No. 3 in C major (No. 4 has no key, but is subtitled Charles Darwin ). – the subtitles indicating the starting points in terms of inspiration rather than pictorial associations.
It is paradoxically both easy and difficult to describe this music: it is strongly individual, but of a compositional character that takes the attentive listener along on the individual journeys. All I can do, in this short note, is to recommend these discs very strongly to those interested in British music of the last 50 years or so, music which does not necessarily embrace at all costs the latest continental or American ‘developments', but which is eminently worthwhile. I hope and trust that this music enjoys the wider success and appreciation that it deserves. The performances seem excellent, as is the recording quality, and the booklet notes are splendid. ***** (five stars awarded)
CLASSICAL MUSIC SENTINEL:
Some composers write chamber music based on the fact that it will be played by a string quartet, pre-determined to a certain extent by that ensemble's character and disposition. Others, like John Ramsay (b 1931), compose music to be performed by a string quartet. You may be thinking: "Well, isn't that exactly the same thing"? It may seem that way on the surface, but to me these two approaches to composition are worlds apart. The first always sounds fabricated, shackled and unimaginative. The second technique on the other hand, like the music of John Ramsay , sounds real, involved and borne by a living spirit.
All four quartets were written over a short period between 2001 and 2009, and all display a strong grasp of the idiom, with neo-romanticism and a solid tonal structure as their points of origin. The String Quartet No. 4 ("Charles Darwin") in particular, has captured my unswerving attention. It was written to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, and dedicated to the Fitzwilliam String Quartet . It is laid out over 21 minutes as one continuous movement, depicting the evolution of the Earth, leading to the arrival of the human race and its destructive legacy, and ending with speculation as to the future of life on this planet. The opening Adagio , with its barely audible whispers, and plaintive and haunting 4-note motif, sets life on its evolutionary path, leading inexorably to man's influence set to music as a War fugue , leaving the planet scorched and desolate. The quartet quietly ends with an Epilogue that seems to point to a glimmer of hope presented by the possibilities of future life on this barren planet. Strong subject matter to set to music for four instruments, but this is exactly the type of music making that supports my opening paragraph.
These masterful quartets are given here their world première recording by the distinguished Fitzwilliam String Quartet , who hold the honor of having performed the Western premières of the last three quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, and of being the first ensemble to record all fifteen of the Shostakovich quartets for Decca. Recordings that are still on the market today and still viewed by many as the standard to match. And maybe 40 years from now, these new recordings of the John Ramsay quartets will have acquired the same stature and respect.
As we'd expect from a seasoned musician, Ramsay's quartets reveal a deep understanding of and admiration for the genre's giants. No. 1 's proportions and design neatly equate with Haydn, though the vocabulary mixes Bartók and Shostakovich. I also hear the vigorous melodic shapes I associate with Nyman, even though I'm sure Ramsay would prefer to keep minimalism and even modernism at arm's length. The slow movement offers variations on Marie Bhodheach , a Gaelic song. Shackleton commemorates the composer's close friend, a distant relation to the explorer and fellow geologist ( Metier downplays Ramsay's scientific career). Textures mimic Shackleton's purported grumpiness, and flamenco gestures reflect the dedicatee's work in Spain, however the overall mood is funereal and somber.
The non-programmatic No. 3 explicitly wrestles with Mozart's Dissonant , K. 465 . The five-movement arch form contrasts tritone-distant keys and the finale employs the Fibonacci series. Commissioned to celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday, the single-movement Fourth 's program is minutely detailed in the notes. Particles and gas form planets upon which life appears. Man evolves and music representing different religions leads to a combative fugue and thence to war culminating in apocalypse. A quiet epilogue reflects upon a barren planet's unexpected beauty. Ramsay shies away from contemporary trends — his music is vastly more distinctive.
Grant Chu Covell
I could find very little on the Internet about John Graham Ramsay. There are references to his alter ego as a geologist, but virtually nothing about his life as a composer and musician. The CD liner notes presents a brief biography of the ‘musical' Ramsay, from which I will liberally quote.
John Ramsay was born in London on 17 June 1931. After the war he studied ‘cello with Timothy Toomey and had lessons in harmony and counterpoint. During National Service, he was fortunate to be assigned to the orchestra of the band of the Corps of Royal Engineers. He played principal ‘cello and was the tenor drummer. He continued study with the cellist Margit Hegedus. After his military service he was appointed Professor at Imperial College, the University of Leeds and at the University of Zurich. He organised the University of London Orchestra and was deputy leader of the Fairfax Orchestra based in London. After his retirement he was involved with developing chamber music courses at Cratoule in France.
Little is said about his compositions in these notes; however he has written a variety of works for chamber and orchestral groups. One would like to know exactly what. Typically, his musical style is tonal, although he has made use of serial techniques.
Interestingly these notes do not refer to his work as a geologist. Contrariwise, the Wikipedia article, which is the only major online source of his life says precious little about his music. Certainly, these liner notes imply that his academic appointments were musical –in fact, they were geological! I think.
The String Quartet No.1 in D minor nods toward Bartok, especially in the first and third movements. These are characterised by energy and excitement. A balance is brought to the work by the use of a traditional Gaelic folksong as the basis of a set of variations. This is moving music. The final ‘rondo' begins with a dark ‘lento' before a ‘cheerful' theme changes the mood. A little unbalanced as a movement, but it brings the Quartet to a good conclusion. I worry that there is a little stylistic mismatch between some of the parts of this quartet. However, on the whole it is an impressive work that never allows the listener's interest to flag.
The Second Quartet was composed in remembrance of Robert Milner Shackleton who was a personal friend of the composer and was distantly related to the Antarctic explorer. Once again the quartet is in four movements. Do not be put off the liner notes description of the first movement as being a ‘dirge.' It may be formally, but there is a beauty and interest to this music that defies any popular definition of that word. This is followed by another slow movement, an adagio which makes use of harmonics, Arabic scales and ‘grumpy' chords reflecting one aspect of his friend's personality. Yet another slow movement follows: this time it is a thoughtful funeral march that proceeds in slow step. It is profound and poignant. The mood changes for the final movement. We are off to sunny Spain, where Shackleton worked. However, exiting Flamenco rhythms and drive are finally pushed aside by the funereal music. To my ear this is the best of the quartets. Certainly it is the most moving and personal.
The String Quartet No.3 is the longest and possibly the most involved of works on these two CDs. It is a harmonically complex, chromatic quartet that explores a variety of moods and nuances of tone. The opening movement is a ‘jagged' homage to Mozart. The second is an adagio which seems to be a skilful counterpoint of Martinu and baroque music. The Scherzo is also complex: in fact there are three separate scherzi subsumed into the movement. These are rhythmically elaborate and sometimes deliberately grotesque and ‘out of tune.' Once again, intricate harmonies inform the slow movement. This time it is the use of complex dissonances and music spiced with polytonality. It is probably the most ‘advanced' movement on this CD. I liked it. The last movement is a mathematician's delight: based on the Fibonacci Series of numbers and Golden Sections. This is not, however, dry as dust – it is not intellectual games. The effect is impressive and brings this diverse work to a satisfactory conclusion.
The raison d'être of the programmatic final Quartet leaves me utterly cold and largely disinterested. The work was commissioned by the organisers of the Cambridge Darwin Festival in 2009. It celebrated the 200 th anniversary of the scientist's birth. The quartet is built on a ‘program of Darwin's career as geologist and evolutionist'. The work is in a single movement and is largely tonal in its harmonic language. Reading the analytical notes reminds me of the sort of programme that accompanies Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony . For example, ‘clouds appear, at first small Cumulus (03:49) which build and threaten for …a storm (04:42) Lightning and thunder is heard (05:04) and the first heavy raindrops arrive (05:41). And so it goes on (and on). Man arrives on the scene and then develops his religious beliefs – Hebrew, Christian and Muslim. All have their little musical references. A ‘War Fugue,' complete with machine gun-fire, heavy gun-fire and no doubt ‘trench foot' are all noted. Nothing could be more calculated to put me off a piece of music that this gobbledygook. However, the strange (and sad) thing is the music is actually excellent. It is a great pity to spoil it with all these cross-references. It does little for the genius of Darwin and nothing for the integrity of Ramsay's music. Listeners (and composer) please dump the programme!
The sound quality has just a little bit of a hard edge to it. However, the playing is excellent and enthusiastic. The CD is well-presented with an attractive cover depicting a ‘micro-photograph of rock crystal in polarized light' which was taken by the composer. I am guessing that the comprehensive analytical notes were written by Ramsay himself; however, no credit is given in the notes.
Although the two CDs appear a bit short, the set is priced as for one disc. So good value all round.
The bottom line is that all four of John Ramsay's String Quartets are worthy examples of the genre and undoubtedly deserve a place in the repertoire. Each work is approachable and is written in a style that is stylistically ‘conservative' without ever being anodyne. They form an impressive cycle.
CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND:
Remember that Spanish lawyer we told you about who writes music on the side (see the newsletter of 19 December 2011)? Well here's a British geologist with similar moonlighting proclivities! In addition to his scientific pursuits, London-born John Ramsay (b. 1931) took up the cello at age eighteen, and has since gone on to compose several works. These include four string quartets that make their recording debut on this new 2-CD album from Metier, which is offered as a "twofer."
While the music is intellectually challenging, it's also very approachable, making for one of the most interesting chamber releases to appear in some time. What's more, all four are played by the Fitzwilliam Quartet, whom most will remember for their legendary performances and recordings of Shostakovich's (1906-1975) quartets.
Written in 2001, the four-movement first quartet begins with an allegro that immediately catches the listener's attention. We're told in the informative album notes its shifting rhythmic patterns have Magyar associations. It couldn't be more different from the next moderato , which is a lovely theme and variations whose subject is a Gaelic folk song.
The following scherzo has animated outer sections surrounding a subdued center that's even more Eastern European sounding than the first movement. It recalls those folk ditties so frequently quoted by Bartók (1881-1945) and Kodály (1882-1967). It concludes in spirited fashion only to be followed by the sad and gloomy lento introductory measures of the finale. But the mood suddenly brightens as the movement becomes a busy rondo , ending this immaculately structured quartet on a radiant D major chord.
The second quartet subtitled "Shackleton,” which was written in memory of the composer's recently deceased friend and colleague Robert Millner Shackleton (1909-2001), presumably dates from between 2001 and 2002. Also in four movements, the opening moderato is based on an insistent baleful motif that conjures images of the Grim Reaper swinging his terrible scythe. A sense of bereavement persists in the following exotically sinister adagio , and lachrymose funeral march (LF) with its plaintive plucked perambulatory accompaniment.
We get a temporary suspension of grief in the finale, which starts off with some fiery flamenco-accented passages laced with catchy two-against-three and three-against-four polyrhythms. But LF eventually returns, ending this quartet -- and the first disc -- in sadness over the loss of a great man.
The second CD begins with the third quartet of 2004, which is atypically in five movements. The first one is entitled "Homage to Mozart K465" and takes its cue from his (1756-1791) Dissonance Quartet (No. 19, K465; 1785). Its slow, harmonically queasy introduction, which is almost identical to Wolfgang's, is followed by an allegro section. This begins with a jumpy syncopated theme (JS) plus countersubject that are developed and succeeded by a subdued mysterious idea. All these motifs are then skillfully combined, and the movement ends with references to JS.
The next adagio is based on a chromatically sinuous idea reminiscent of some giant bird gliding on thermals. On the contrary the scherzo is an antsy tripartite affair with outer sections having spastic rhythmic shifts and changes of key. The inner one stands out for a sprinkling of semitones which gives it an off-key preternatural character.
The keyed up tension that's been building for the past three movements peaks in the polytonal, dissonance-ridden opening of the next andante . It's then resolved in a cathartic concluding coda that ends the movement decidedly in C minor.
All this paves the way for the grand finale, which is a fugue with a subject and later harmonic structure that the composer has based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers (see the album notes and the newsletter of 10 May 2011). In so doing, Ramsay has come up with a contrapuntal gem that ends this intriguing quartet in splendid fashion.
The album concludes with the fourth quartet from 2009 subtitled "Charles Darwin." It was commissioned for the 200th anniversary of the great English naturalist's (1809-1882) birth, and is in one continuous movement [track-6] having three subsections. Each of these is programmatically related to a different aspect of Darwin's pioneering work (see the informative album notes for details). And most of the scenario for the first two could be likened to the prehistoric earth sequence featuring Stravinsky's (1882-1971) Rite of Spring (1913, revised 1947) in Walt Disney's (1901-1966) 1940 version of Fantasia (see the newsletter of 6 January 2011).
The opening part envisions earth's creation with swirling clouds of cosmic notes gradually coalescing into a mother earth motif (ME) [02:23] that will become an idée fixe serving to unify the piece. The music goes on to limn geological upheavals giving rise to landmasses and the atmosphere. Violent storms with torrential rains then break out [05:05] and abate, leaving sunny placid seas [07:38].
The next section begins with a "wriggly" theme [08:51], as Ramsay calls it, describing the emergence of primitive life forms from these Paleozoic waters. This is transformed into more sophisticated ideas representing the evolution of larger more complex animals [09:59], and eventually mankind [11:53].
Thematic references to three of the world's most widely accepted religions, which seem less and less tolerant of one another, follow. The first, Judaism, is a Hebraic folk melody [12:53], which may remind you of the last movement from Shostakovich's second string quartet (1944). The next, Christianity, is a hymn tune [13:04], and the last, Islam, some Eastern sounding number [13:22].
Increasingly discordant passages with rhythmic quotes [13:52] from "Mars, the Bringer of War" in Gustav Holst's (1874-1934) The Planets then lead to a contrapuntal jihad [14:14], culminating in a nuclear holocaust [17:04] and the extinction of all life [17:33].
The third and final part is a reflective contemplation of things to come. It begins with sad ambivalent passages [18:35] containing allusions to ME in the minor. But nuclear winter finally dissipates as ME returns optimistically in C major. However, Darwin's conclusions about the unpredictability of mankind's future color Ramsay's final thoughts, and he closes the quartet with ME once again in the minor. It's a dramatic ending to an album of music by a composer with something new and interesting to say in a conventional way.
The performances by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet (FSQ) are impeccable! They display the same razor sharp precision, confidence and emotional commitment to the music which characterized their ever popular Shostakovich performances. And as far as testimonials to FSQ's abilities are concerned, need we say more than they so impressed Dmitri he dedicated his last three quartets to them! *
Incidentally in 2010 after thirty-seven years with the FSQ, second violinist Jonathan Sparey decided it was time to hang up his bow, and was replaced by Colin Scobie. With Jonathan playing in the first and last of Ramsay's quartets, and Colin the other two, it's quite obvious the group has lost none of its standing.
The recordings were made on two separate occasions in 2010 (Nos. 1 & 4) and 2011 (Nos. 2 & 3) at St. Martin's Church, East Woodhay, England. They project a consistent, well focused chamber-sized soundstage in a complementary acoustic that captures every nuance of the FSQ's immaculate playing. The sound is exceptionally clear, and remains quite musical despite bright spots in the violins' upper registers.
In conclusion it should be noted there are some isolated barely audible low frequency bumps most likely related to outside traffic. However, with music as captivating as this, these will probably go unnoticed even by any audiophiles.
Robert E McQuiston
* this is not actually the case, though the FSQ did give the Western premieres. – divine art)
After a career devoted to rock, Londoner John Ramsay has in recent years turned to classical music. This is no cause for alarm, however - Ramsay is not another Jon Lord or Paul McCartney, but rather a retired scientist who made his name in geology, keeping a foot from his student days onwards in the art music door. This is the first CD of his music, all premiere recordings by the renowned Fitzwilliam String Quartet, the same ensemble that gave first performances west of the Iron Curtain of Shostakovich's last three Quartets.
The Fitzwilliams were also the first to record Shostakovich's complete Quartets as a cycle, and veterans Jonathan Sparey and Alan George were part of those celebrated recordings. As it happens, this is Sparey's final appearance: after 37 years' sterling service, he retired after recording the First and Fourth Quartets - the latter dedicated appropriately to the Fitzwilliams - leaving a younger Colin Scobie to record the other two. In this recital they perform John Ramsay with the same intensity and attentiveness they have previously accorded Shostakovich. Ramsay is not Shostakovich and his four Quartets are unlikely to find their way into the repertory of Russian ensembles; yet with luck some of them will be taken up in the wake of these recordings at least by British quartets looking for interesting but audience-friendly material.
Ramsay's Quartets are fundamentally tonal, with a good deal of chromaticism along the way, written in what many would describe as a 'traditional' style, typified by well-structured movements, the indication of tonality in the title, the employment of orthodox forms and markings like 'scherzo', 'rondo', 'moderato' etc., and by the abundance of melody. Ramsay is certainly no hobbyist, or at least he does not sound like one. He was in his seventies when he composed these works, and they are, consequently, deeply considered, individual, serious, sculptured works. Their self-evident intellectual grounding makes their instant approachability all the more gladdening.
The immediately attractive First Quartet makes an ideal opener. The set of variations on a traditional Scottish Gaelic theme is particularly lovely, enhanced further by some delightfully delicate playing by the Fitzwilliams. Alas, the theme tune is called "Marie Bhodheach" by the Sasunnach notes, which is neither Gaelic nor grammatical: the title is in fact "A Mhàiri bhòidheach" ('Bonny Mary').
The brief third-movement funeral march of the 'Shackleton' Quartet has a haunting beauty, the lachrymose mood of which is reprised near the end of the final movement. The work is named in memory of an older friend and colleague of Ramsay's, not the great explorer Ernest, although the two were distantly related. A mere quarter of an hour long, yet the Second Quartet packs a considerable emotional punch, the pervasive melancholy lightened only by a brief jaunty Allegro, flamenco at the start of the finale.
The Third Quartet pays homage to Mozart in the first movement, in particular his Quartet K.465, and the gentle dissonance typical of that work, so surprising to 18th-century audiences, recurs throughout the work, aided and abetted effectively by occasional bitonality and rapidly alternating keys. The final movement throws in for good measure a fugue based on the mathematical Fibonacci Sequence, leaving the reader suspecting a dog's dinner, whereas the listener will hear a 21st-century composer proving that the string quartet as an artistic medium has a lot of life in it yet, even using 'old-fashioned' methods: this one is jam-packed with invention and energy.
According to the notes - unsigned, but presumably written by Ramsay - the Fourth Quartet is a musical portrayal of " Darwin 's work as a geologist and evolutionist". In fact a whistle-stop history of evolution (!), it is about as programmatic as is possible, as evidenced by the almost minute-by-minute commentary supplied: "Lightning and thunder is heard (05.04) and the first heavy raindrops arrive (05.41). The storm finally breaks (06.03) and slowly subsides (06.55), with sunshine reappearing (07.38)..." All of which makes it sound rather precious, but that is not the case - Ramsay pays a powerful, imaginative, emphatic and serene tribute to the genius of Darwin . Needless to say, humanity manages in the end to wipe itself out, along with all other life forms, giving rise to a cogitative epilogue describing the barren beauty of a deburdened planet.
Other reviews of this release have tended to praise the sound quality, but whilst it is reasonably good - intimate, certainly, with no typical intrusion of the inhalations of the first violin - it is also undeniably harsh-edged on occasion and always slightly muddy: time for Métier to upgrade their technology, maybe. The booklet is neat, informative and well written. The geological cover photo, repeated magnified on the CD itself, is ironic in a sense, in that Ramsay's biography makes no mention at all of his whole other life.
Though a double-disc set, the running time only just exceeds a single CD, but justice is restored by its one-disc pricing.
Ask anyone in the business what is the biggest challenge facing classical music, and it is odds on their reply will revolve around funding cuts, inadequate music education and ageing audiences. It is also a dead certainty that retrogressive attitudes within classical music itself will not feature among the challenges. Which is puzzling when you look at what classical music gets excited about. The New Year started with a global concert by one of the most reactionary institutions in the arts world. This was followed by the Mahler ringtone in a teacup and then came the world premiere of two minutes of music by a long dead composer vigorously spun by a social media agency retained by the audience hungry BBC with a little help from their Guardian angel.
All of which was enough to convince the general public that classical music had somehow manouvered its cerebral cortex into the proximity of its nether regions, even before it turned out that the Brahms "discovery" was the product of spin and not substance. It would be difficult to accept all this nonsense even if there was no substance left to get excited about. But that is most certainly not the case, as is proved by this notable new CD release.
My post about the recent music and symmetry event at Snape curated by Oxford professor of mathematics Marcus du Sautoy generated a lot of attention. The subject of music's overlap with science always exerts a particular fascination, possibly because it takes us into what the Sufi philosopher Ibn 'Arabi called barzakh or the intermediate world, the realm between the known and unknown. Creation theory remains a contentious subject for both Christians and Muslims and in 2009 the evolutionists celebrated both the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work ‘On the origin of Species' with events including the Cambridge Darwin Festival.
As part of the Festival celebrations the organisers commissioned the String Quartet No.4 "Charles Darwin" from composer John Ramsay. The Quartet is written as a single twenty-one minute movement divided into three sections. The first portrays the evolution of the earth from chaos to order, the second describes the development of life and the arrival of Homo sapiens , and the third is a speculation on the future of our planet and mankind. In Ivesian style the quartet quotes from liturgical music of the three monotheistic religions and the 5/4 rhythmic pulse from Holst's Mars makes an appearance representing human discord.
John Ramsay, seen below, was born in London in 1931. He studied music privately with several distinguished teachers and has combined music with an illustrious academic career in the field of geology culminating in professorships at Imperial College London, the University of Leeds and University of Zurich. Since retiring he has lived in Isirac, France where he teaches the cello and continues with some academic work. John Ramsay's music explores the outer reaches of tonality and shows the influence of Bartók and Martinu and Ives. It is notable for its use of non-twelve tone serialism; as an example the Fibonacci Series, the Golden Section, determines the harmonic series in the fifth movement of his String Quartet No.4.
At a time when decoding is mandatory to separate spin from substance, it is refreshing to discover a CD release that does exactly what it says on the can. John Ramsay's Four String Quartets have been recorded by the Fitzwilliam Quartet - acclaimed for their Shostakovich recordings - on 2 CDs for independent label Métier. Totally committed performances are captured in excellent sound in St. Martin's Church, East Woodhay, Berkshire by Philip Hobbs, who is best known for his work for Linn Records. But above all we are not dealing with promise: John Ramsay comes to us as a fully formed composer with something important to say and the technique to say it. It would be nice if classical music gets as excited about eighty-seven minutes of never previously heard John Ramsay as it did about two minutes of previously heard Brahms. But I am not holding my breath.
Following on from John France's review of this release I don't intend repeating his full background outline on John Ramsey, who as a composer is a name which will be new to most of us, as it is to me. The Fitzwilliam Quartet is however a very familiar musical institution, whose Shostakovich quartet cycle on the Decca label is still very much a reference and pretty much unequalled in terms of grit, emotional character and communicative power. Prof. Ramsey is a friend of the ensemble, and the booklet outlines their association down to the String Quartet No. 4 , which was written for them.
Very professionally composed and full of musical interest, John Ramsay's idiom is tonal and approachable but by no means ‘easy listening', with plenty of intellectual rigour and complexity in its conception and structuring. The String Quartet No. 1 has some beautifully lyrical moments in its second Molto moderato movement. There's much fascinating rhythmic creativity in its first movement and the Scherzo third, the close harmonies of which result in some intense dissonances which always resolve in one way or another. This also has a pastoral, folk-like central section which recalls Bartók, and the ‘snap' rhythms carry through into the opening of the final movement.
Beethovenian four-movement structure is also a feature of the String Quartet No. 2 , subtitled for a friend of the composer. The first movement is an expressive memorial, as the booklet notes describe, a type of ‘dirge', but one which moves through numerous variations and an elegantly restrained sense of climax. The second movement is almost an extension of the first, with high lines and harmonics spreading towards with an inexorable and weighty Adagio tread. The third movement is titled Funeral March , though this could arguably have applied to the first two as well. The last breaks into an Allegro, flamenco , closing with a mournful adagio molto . I'm in two minds about this piece. It is clearly a heartfelt and necessary expression for the composer, but I hesitate to say it succeeds as a concert piece in its entirety. These are four movements which could have been one powerful arch, but which instead roll into each other like sad syrup with a rather lonely rhythmic lump.
CD 2 opens more promisingly, and I like the String Quartet No. 3 's combination of Mozartean grace and tonal scrunchiness in the first movement. The second movement meanders rather aimlessly, but with some closely worked-out thematic development and interaction. The third is a set of three Scherzi which skip along vivaciously, uniting and clashing in keys which lap together like interference waves in choppy water. This conflict of keys is brought to a head in the fourth movement, which explores dissonance in a way which at times feels like two quartets struggling together in a bag, or one quartet out of phase with itself. The final resolution of this into a C minor cadence lays the ground for a fugal finale which runs on the fuel of a Fibonacci Series of numbers. This is a movement full of energy and intrigue, but other than a fine quiet coda it's neither an emotional roller-coaster or a show-stopper, more a technical tour-de-force.
The String Quartet No. 4 is a single movement in four sections, and ‘built on a program of [Charles] Darwin's work as a geologist and evolutionist.' The following text then gainsays this by indicating that it in fact has nothing to do with Darwin's work and career but is more programmatic of the origins of the Earth out of chaos, the beginnings of life, arrival of mankind and speculation on the future. Either way there is clearly plenty of narrative progress going on, but as John France suggests in his review the attempt to link intended references to musical events can be counter-productive, and it is better to allow one's imagination free rein. There is plenty to get one's teeth into, and it will depend a little on whether or not you appreciate music which is deliberately constructed around textual associations - not because of the directly ‘literal' context, but since the music is constantly crawling towards but never quite reaching its narrative goals. It is in the nature of music not to be able to express actual words or images, other than those which arise in the imagination or derive from the personal associations of the listening individual. This piece fails through being too literal to the themes it is trying to convey, and the quotes of hymns as ‘progress of man's differing religious philosophies' jump out as being rather cheesy. When I think of the kind of turmoil Ives could generate, or how the subtle suggestions of nature work in pieces by Beethoven or Messiaen - just to pluck two of a myriad of names, then I have to admire but alas abstain from voting this work a success. Time will show me correct or not, and it is only a personal opinion; John France considered it ‘excellent'.
This is a worthwhile and substantial body of work which convinces through the quality of its performances. John Ramsay is indeed fortunate to have the support of such a fine string quartet, and with an excellent recording this is a release which deserves respect and attention.
John Ramsay (born 1931) is an interesting character. A cellist and composer, his music is essentially tonally based, appealing to the ear, but not without a more ascerbic side, and also capable of some depth. The influence of Bartók in the First Quartet is clear in the driving, asymmetric rhythms of the first movement (a movement that somehow seems prematurely curtailed). This is a spirited performance by the Fitzwilliam Quartet, who also find depth in the second movement variations on a Gaelic theme.
Ramsay's Second Quartet is dedicated to Robert Milner Shackleton (1909-2001), a personal friend of the composer's and a Professor of Geology. The first movement, styled as a medieval dirge, is simple yet effective. The surprise inclusion of flamenco in the finale serves to throw the blacker majority of the work into high relief. The Third Quartet is subtitled ‘Homage to Mozart K465'. The tribute of the opening to Mozart's ‘Dissonance' is immediately obvious; Ramsay soon takes the music on an imaginary journey of what might have been. The booklet notes suggest the influence of Martinu in the second movement (wholly believable, aurally, in this poignant yet gentle outflowing). Very affectingly played, this leads to a ‘poly-Scherzo' (actually three polymetric Scherzos in one), where the slightly dry recording seems emphasized. The fourth movement takes us back to dirge, and the most dissonant music so far. The finale is a playful fugue that uses the Fibonacci series to generate material both harmonic and rhythmic.
Finally, commissioned by the 2009 Cambridge Darwin Festival, and dedicated to the present performers, the Fourth Quartet is a single 20-minute span. There is a programme (centering on evolution, unsurprisingly), but just how necessary this is, is up for debate. The music ‘solidifies' into a motto theme. Thereafter the programme is fairly specific, perhaps naively so, although the integration of musical material representing various religious elements (Hebrew, Christian and Muslim) is of interest. The final section includes a ‘war fugue', in which the conflict is graphically (again, naively) documented in sound.