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Sally BEAMISH (b. 1956)
Concerto No. 2 for Viola and Orchestra “The Seafarer” (2001) [27:46]
Whitescape (2000) [10:22]
Sangsters (2002) [19:42]
Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Ola Rudner
rec. August 2003 (Whitescape; Sangsters); November 2005 (Viola Concerto), Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden. DDD
BIS BISCD1241 [58:47]
Experience Classicsonline

Six years on from the end of her joint residency - alongside Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist - with the Swedish and Scottish Chamber Orchestras, Beamish’s relationship with both orchestras, coupled with her equally significant relationship with the Swedish label BIS continues to bear fruit.
This is the fifth CD and the third of her orchestral music, that BIS has dedicated to Beamish’s music; music that was written principally during her tenure with the Swedish and Scottish orchestras between 1998 and 2002. Few British composers are able to lay claim to similar dedication from a record company, a point the composer has personally acknowledged on numerous occasions.
Beamish’s relationship with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra goes back to 1987 when she spent a year in the orchestra’s viola section, since when she has become permanently resident in Scotland along with her cellist husband, Robert Irvine. The culture and landscape of Scotland has gradually come to inform much of her music and on this latest disc is heard to most telling effect in Sangsters, perhaps the most noticeably “Scottish” of the three works, in inspiration if not melody.
Drawing inspiration from the poem of the same name by Betty McKellar, the three movements of Sangsters correspond to the three verses of McKellar’s poem, with Beamish drawing out differing groups of soloists from within the orchestra in each of the movements. The skylarks of the poem’s first verse are represented by the higher pitched voices of the orchestra with a prominent part for solo timpani in music that is largely airborne, evoking the song and freedom of the skylark whilst skilfully interwoven with the rhythmic inflection of pibroch. The second movement turns to the sea and the “selkies” (seals) of McKellar’s poem, with the lower voices of the orchestra conjuring darker hues in harmony that occasionally recalls Rautavaara and his Cantus Arcticus - try from around 2:30. It is the brass that comes to the fore in the final movement, the initial trumpet fanfares evolving into chorale-like figures that are overlaid with echoes of the opening two movements.
In the single movement of Whitescape, Beamish’s music is concerned with her opera, Monster, based on the life of Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley. The composer describes Whitescape as a “sketch pad” of ideas for the opera, concentrated into a ten minute span that explores the desolation of the arctic wastes to which Frankenstein follows his creation in order to destroy it, allied with the mental traumas of Shelley’s troubled early life. Haunting, other worldly echoes and simpler strands of melodic material combine to compelling effect in a work that gives the impression of something far more substantial than its relatively brief duration implies.
Beamish’s first Viola Concerto was written in 1995 and along with the Cello Concerto River and Tam Lin, for oboe and orchestra, was included on the first BIS CD dedicated to the composer’s orchestral music in the late 1990s. The single movement of the first concerto took as its basis the New Testament story of the denial of Christ by his apostle Peter. In the three movement Second Concerto it is the ninth century Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer from which Beamish draws her inspiration and more specifically a new translation of The Seafarer. It is the work of Charles Harrison Wallace, a man whose Scots/Swedish roots give what Beamish regards as “a very Nordic take on the poem” and seems wholly appropriate given the Scottish and Swedish connections of the composer’s residency. That the poem had a potent effect on Beamish is clearly borne out by the fact that Wallace’s translation had already inspired two works before the composer turned to the Viola Concerto No. 2 as the final panel in her “Seafarer Trilogy”.
Cast in three substantial movements, it is the formal cogency of the work as much as the material itself that impresses; one senses that Beamish is a composer that is never less than in complete control of her musical direction. Every note is conceived with a sense of place and purpose allied with a deft economy of means that is never overstepped. Not surprisingly for a composer who spent a good many years as a professional viola player, the solo part is beautifully written, taking flight in the opening Andante irrequieto before ultimately subsiding via a series of lyrically searching “cadenzas” in the final Andante riflessivo to a conclusion of spiritually reflective resolution.
The BIS recording can only be described as exemplary capturing the music in vivid, transparent colour, whilst Tabea Zimmerman, Ola Rudner and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra are truly worthy exponents of Beamish’s strikingly evocative, personal and atmosphere-rich scores. The result is a beautifully realised CD.
Christopher Thomas


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