Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:

Sally BEAMISH (b. 1956)
The Caledonian Road
The Day Dawn
No I'm Not Afraid (Six poems by Irina Ratushinskaya)
The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone

Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ola Rudner
John Harle, saxophone
Sally Beamish, narrator
BIS BIS-CD-1161 [DDD 67:21]
  £12.50 Amazon UK   £11.99  Amazon US $17.97


Sally Beamish has matured into one of our most talented and original composers within a remarkably short period of time. It is amazing to think that until around 1990 she devoted most of her time to a career as a freelance violist, although she had in fact been composing since the age of four. The turning point was the birth of her first child, the theft of her viola and her husband, the cellist Robert Irvine, returning from a spell of work in Scotland with the news that there were opportunities north of the border and that they should consider making a move. The move was subsequently made and it turned out to be crucial to both Beamish's career and her compositional language, which has undergone transformation and development into a truly individual voice, increasingly influenced and inspired, I feel, by her new surroundings.

What stands out in her music is a natural gift for melody combined with a true sense of line and development. Her formal and structural thinking is always clear and logical, whilst the orchestration demonstrates an impressive palette, both imaginative and texturally transparent and luminous.

The four works here presented span a period of around eleven years, No I'm Not Afraid being a relatively early piece, first performed in 1989, the latest being the soprano saxophone concerto, evocatively titled The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone, premiered at the 1999 St. Magnus Festival. (The Day Dawn, although premiered last year, is a reworking of an earlier piece of the same name for amateur forces). All four works show a different facet of the composer's musical nature and, listened to in the order presented on the disc, form a very satisfying sixty seven minutes listening.

The Caledonian Road has a double meaning for the composer, signifying both the road north to Scotland as well as the Caledonian Road in Islington, the area of London in which Beamish grew up. The Scottish influence is clearly discernible in what is essentially a set of variations exploring the open intervals of plain chant and horn calls, woven into a twelve minute piece which develops a long melody heard on the oboe at the outset. The Day Dawn was written in response to a close friend of the composer losing her daughter and is a beautifully atmospheric lament for strings based on an old fiddle tune of the same name from Shetland. This is a touchingly moving work, played with great sensitivity by the orchestra, and in total contrast to No, I'm Not Afraid which follows. Although referred to as songs, the poems are narrated by the composer, who delivers them in a highly natural way. The poems are interspersed with five instrumental interludes which serve to bind the work together, the poignant opening music returning very clearly at the end as the accompaniment to the final "song". For me, The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone, is the most impressive work on the disc (and in many ways the most challenging). The imagination and invention is highly characteristic, as is the composer's ability to draw on a variety of influences, including references to jazz, and mould them into something which is uniquely her own. John Harle is a superb advocate of the work, the solo part being played with both panache and intensity. 

As always with BIS the production and engineering is exemplary, with crystal clear sound in a natural acoustic. The composer must be grateful to both the performers and BIS for recordings which are quite simply first class in every way. So am I. This is a disc which I will return to regularly and the prospect of a major new oratorio by Beamish for the Proms this summer is an exciting one indeed.

Christopher Thomas

Performance and sound

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