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.
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
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.