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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 for String Quartet (1990) [16:03]
Judith WEIR (b.1954)
String Quartet (1990) [13:23]
William SWEENEY (b.1950)
String Quartet No.3 (2004) [36:34]
Edinburgh Quartet
rec. no details
DELPHIAN DCD34038 [78:24]

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


The disc’s title contains two elements – the title of the George Mackay Brown poem that inspired Kenneth Dempster and the idea that all four quartets are written by Scottish composers. Maybe one could quibble with the idea that they’re in some way thereby “from” Scotland. Does a composer have to live and write the work in, say, Dundee for it to be “from Scotland”. Can it be “from Scotland” if you’re Scottish but writing it in a studio in London? Normally these things are of no interest to me but the notes seem to be pursuing some kind of agenda so let’s get the nationalistic stuff out of the way here and now.

Four quartets by four composers, then, and all Scottish by birth. Dempster’s work is the most recent, dating from 2005. It’s rather abrasive but moves fluidly with Ivesian use of hymnal material; plenty of abrupt sonorities, though those hymnal quotations have a “discrete” quality to them that rather revokes them from absolute integration into the fabric of the writing. The fact that they become rhythmically assailed does ally them to Ives but the Scottish fiddle elements and eerie sawing points to another possible source of invention, Bartók.

James Clapperton has lived outside Scotland for much of his adult life. The Great Divorce derives from the title of a C.S. Lewis book. Slowly moving modal lines take in a steady and incremental detail. Folk-like exchanges – little monologues really – fleck the score increasingly at this point. It’s highly contemplative and still; which makes the cello’s angular extroversion at 14:30 all the more surprising.

Judith Weir’s 1990 Quartet pushes for what she calls “on the string” lyricism. Each of the three movements is based on a Spanish romance (first two) and a Scottish ballad (for the finale). The writing has her accustomed grace and generosity – in the central movement it also embraces earthier, vocalised beauties of its own. It sounds very rewarding to play – and equally rewarding to hear, should we ever get the chance in concert.

Finally there is William Sweeney’s long Third Quartet  - almost as long as the other three put together. Sweeney is another who seems to have assimilated some Bartók – those short, jagged restless motifs sound cut from the cloth of the later quartets. It becomes clearer, later, that some of these mosaic-like rough themes also have their own folk-like elements – something of a motif for this entire disc in fact – in ways that fleetingly recall Janáček. Spare, single lines attest to a certain bereft quality and the sterner writing is clenched; solo moments abound and weight distribution retains interest. The increasingly jazzy cello motifs in the finale compel interest as well. For all its length there’s no fat here - everything counts and counts well.

So wherever they were written these are fine works by four excellent composers. The Edinburgh Quartet – I don’t know where they were recorded or when – plays with tactile and bright commitment; no warming cocoon and fully attuned to the acerbities of the writing. So not always pretty – but invariably on the money emotively.

Jonathan Woolf



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