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The Cold Dancer – Contemporary String Quartets from Scotland
Kenneth DEMPSTER (b. 1962)

String Quartet No.4 The Cold Dancer (2005) [12:22]
James CLAPPERTON (b. 1968)

The Great Divorce (1990) [16:03]
Judith WEIR (b. 1954)

String Quartet (1990) [13:23]
William SWEENEY (b. 1950)

String Quartet No.3 (2004) [36:34]
The Edinburgh Quartet
rec. no information available, published 2006
DELPHIAN DCD 34038 [78:24]

Sound Sample
Excpt The Cold Dancer
Sound samples are removed after two months


The title of Dempster’s Fourth String Quartet derives from Mackay Brown’s A Reel of Seven Fishermen, a text that also inspired Maxwell Davies for his similarly titled orchestral work. This compact piece opens with an arresting gesture abounding in formidable energy. Later, this contrasts with dance-like sections and with faint echoes of music heard in the distance: hymn-like tunes and hints of fiddle music. A restatement of the opening music leads straight into a beautiful coda "like the memory of a memory", to quote the present annotator. This concise work is really very fine, and Dempster has obviously a real flair for the medium, for this is already his fourth essay in the genre, and highly successful at that. If his first three string quartets are nearly as fine as this one, I would really like to hear them.

Just as Dempster’s The Cold Dancer relates to Mackay Brown, so does Clapperton’s The Great Divorce relate to a short book by C.S. Lewis. One of the immediately striking features of this work is the fact that the instruments play muted throughout and that dynamics rarely rise above mp, which imbues the music with a dreamlike, somewhat ambiguous character, still emphasised by the contrapuntal nature of much of the music. It is as if everything happens in a dream. The modal inflections and the various folk allusions suggest Highland fiddle music, "to represent the composer’s desire to come to terms with an aspect of his cultural inheritance" (John Fallas). As in the case of Dempster’s quartet, one might ask whether any prior knowledge of the literary source behind the music may enhance one’s listening experience. I suppose that it might help; but, as far as I am concerned, I find that the music has enough intrinsic atmosphere and expression to be enjoyed in its own right. This is a beautiful work that generously repays repeated hearings.

Surprisingly, this is the second recording within a few months time of Judith Weir’s String Quartet, that has otherwise remained unrecorded and apparently little performed for many years. Another recording is available on Genuin GEN 86065 ("The British Book") that I reviewed a few months ago. The music is warmly lyrical and melodic throughout, and its apparent, often deceptive simplicity is further enhanced by the strict reliance on "normal" bowing and deliberate avoidance of any ‘modern’ string playing technique all-too-often heard in recent music. Typically enough, too, Weir never overworks her material, so that the music never outstays its welcome. I hope that this lovely work will soon become permanently part of the string quartet’s repertoire.

Sweeney’s String Quartet No.3 is a substantial and elaborate work originally planned as a large-scale single movement based on two sets of contrasting material briefly interrupted by what the composer describes as "solo or duet reflections". The work, however, has considerably outgrown the composer’s intentions. Although there are now three movements, incorporating such "solo or duet reflections", the whole may still be perceived as a long single movement, in three continuous, contrasted sections; and the coherence of the whole is achieved through variants of the two basic sets of material. That said, it might probably be far-fetched to describe the work as a theme and variations. The first movement opens with "nebulous chordal shapes" (John Fallas), from which melodic phrases slowly emerge. There is much interplay between these two sets that sometimes exchange their character, whereas the contours of each movement are somewhat blurred in a successful attempt to tighten the structure of the work. The music eventually unfolds according to its own inner logic, which – again – tends to emphasise the continuity between the movements. As in Dempster’s and Clapperton’s works, the melodic fragments often allude to some imaginary folk music without actually quoting any of it. Another parallel with Dempster’s and Clapperton’s string quartets is the suggestion of yet another literary source, Hugh MacDiarmid this time; but, again, the music can be enjoyed on its own terms.

Performances and recording are first rate, and I really enjoyed this magnificent release. I hope that the Edinburgh Quartet and Delphian will soon give us more of such fine stuff. Much very beautiful music to be heard here.

Hubert Culot

See also review by Jonathan Woolf A March RECORDING OF THE MONTH


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