Sally Beamish’s now substantial
catalogue of work includes music for virtually
every major genre. The string quartet
however is a medium that she has only
explored in latter years. This is all
the more surprising given that Beamish’s
initial career was as a professional viola
player and that she has previously acknowledged
the string quartet as being particularly
close to her heart. Yet it was as recently
as 1999 that she wrote her First Quartet
with the Second, Opus California
quickly appearing the following year.
Her adopted home in
Scotland has been a major influence
for some years now but in the Quartet
No.1 she takes her cue from a diverse
range of cultures, drawing them together
in a captivating musical discourse.
This is bound together by her use of
fragments of material taken from her
1988 setting of poems by the Ukrainian
As is entirely characteristic
of Beamish’s music, musical gestures
are rarely created for their own sake.
Rather there is a sense that every note
has been thought through and that every
detail of the music has its own rightful
place in the completed creation. Consequently
the music exhibits a textural and cerebral
clarity that serves to underline its
obvious and often touching integrity
and openness of spirit.
Cast in four movements,
Beamish states that the first conjures
images of North America, of open spaces
accentuated by the open intervals of
the initial declamatory call to attention.
This soon subsides into more reflective
mood whilst still underpinned by the
intervallic motif of the opening. The
Allegro second movement - the
scherzo in all but title - is influenced
by Ukrainian folk singing and juxtaposes
passages of dance-like rhythmic energy
that occasionally recall Bartók.
There are also simpler, more restrained,
passages unified in a rondo structure.
Beamish describes the third movement
(Lento) as a Turkish lament.
The affecting simplicity of the chordal
opening bars dominate much of the movement
though this is overrun at its heart
by the eastern influence of the solo
violin. The chords of the opening ultimately
return to close the movement in quiet
contemplation. In the final Allegro
Beamish transports her listener to Africa.
The oscillating violins of the first
bars give way to more astringent dance
rhythms that reveal the African influence
in starker relief before the music ultimately
fades away to silence.
also dominate the Second Quartet Opus
California, written to a commission
from the Brodsky Quartet in 2000. At
a little under eleven minutes for its
four movements this is a more fleeting
affair than the eighteen and a half
minutes of the First Quartet. It takes
as its starting point Beethoven’s Op.
18 No. 4, the work that shares this
disc and which Beamish says "captured
my imagination when I played in my first
string quartet at the age of fourteen".
Beamish takes Beethoven’s
first subject, first bridge passage,
second subject and second bridge passage
and uses them as the basis for each
of the four movements. The bridge passages
are nattily used in the second and fourth
movements to describe two differing
American bridges, the first man-made
in the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The second is the natural bridges of
a rock formation on a Santa Cruz beach.
Brief though they are,
each of the contrasting movements are
highly entertaining. The first, "Boardwalk",
jaunty and rhythmically colourful, the
Golden Gate mysterious as viewed from
a plane through the shifting mist of
early morning. Dreams Before Lullabies
is a touching, gently rocking song for
an unborn baby. The jagged, energetic
rhythmic patterns of the finale reflect
the strange natural structures of the
Santa Cruz rocks before a fleeting reference
to the opening of the quartet brings
it to a close.
The Beethoven Op. 18
No. 4 is sandwiched between the two
Beamish quartets and sensibly placed
to precede the Beamish Second that bears
Beethoven’s melodic stamp. Of the six
quartets that comprise the Op. 18 set
this was the only one Beethoven wrote
in a minor key. The rich and overtly
dark romanticism of the opening movement
is captured in suitably hued tones by
the Emperor Quartet. Aside from a slight
lack of playfulness at the outset of
the Andante scherzoso it’s a beautifully
executed performance, marked by wonderfully
observed dynamic contrasts and real
gypsy bravura in the breathless closing
bars of the final Allegretto.
I first came across
the Emperor Quartet a few years ago
when they released their excellent recording
of the William Walton Quartet on Black
At the time I was struck by the powerful
commitment of their playing, a feature
clearly brought to bear here once again
in no short measure. Add to that two
immensely enjoyable quartets from Sally
Beamish, whose music BIS continue to
champion with admirable dedication.
The results speak very clearly for themselves.