Following on from John France’s review
of this release I don’t intend repeating his full background
outline on John Ramsay, who as a composer is a name which will
be new to most of us, as it is to me. The Fitzwilliam Quartet
is however a very familiar musical institution, whose Shostakovich
quartet cycle on the Decca label is still very much a reference
and pretty much unequalled in terms of grit, emotional character
and communicative power. Prof. Ramsay is a friend of the ensemble,
and the booklet outlines their association down to the String
Quartet No. 4, which was written for them.
Very professionally composed and full of musical interest, John
Ramsay’s idiom is tonal and approachable but by no means
‘easy listening’, with plenty of intellectual rigour
and complexity in its conception and structuring. The String
Quartet No. 1 has some beautifully lyrical moments in its
second Molto moderato movement. There’s much fascinating
rhythmic creativity in its first movement and the Scherzo
third, the close harmonies of which result in some intense dissonances
which always resolve in one way or another. This also has a
pastoral, folk-like central section which recalls Bartók,
and the ‘snap’ rhythms carry through into the opening
of the final movement.
Beethovenian four-movement structure is also a feature of the
String Quartet No. 2, subtitled for a friend of the composer.
The first movement is an expressive memorial, as the booklet
notes describe, a type of ‘dirge’, but one which
moves through numerous variations and an elegantly restrained
sense of climax. The second movement is almost an extension
of the first, with high lines and harmonics spreading towards
with an inexorable and weighty Adagio tread. The third
movement is titled Funeral March, though this could arguably
have applied to the first two as well. The last breaks into
an Allegro, flamenco, closing with a mournful
adagio molto. I’m in two minds about this piece.
It is clearly a heartfelt and necessary expression for the composer,
but I hesitate to say it succeeds as a concert piece in its
entirety. These are four movements which could have been one
powerful arch, but which instead roll into each other like sad
syrup with a rather lonely rhythmic lump.
CD 2 opens more promisingly, and I like the String Quartet
No. 3’s combination of Mozartean grace and tonal scrunchiness
in the first movement. The second movement meanders rather aimlessly,
but with some closely worked-out thematic development and interaction.
The third is a set of three Scherzi which skip along
vivaciously, uniting and clashing in keys which lap together
like interference waves in choppy water. This conflict of keys
is brought to a head in the fourth movement, which explores
dissonance in a way which at times feels like two quartets struggling
together in a bag, or one quartet out of phase with itself.
The final resolution of this into a C minor cadence lays the
ground for a fugal finale which runs on the fuel of a Fibonacci
Series of numbers. This is a movement full of energy and intrigue,
but other than a fine quiet coda it’s neither an emotional
roller-coaster or a show-stopper, more a technical tour-de-force.
The String Quartet No. 4 is a single movement in four
sections, and ‘built on a program of [Charles] Darwin’s
work as a geologist and evolutionist.’ The following text
then gainsays this by indicating that it in fact has nothing
to do with Darwin’s work and career but is more programmatic
of the origins of the Earth out of chaos, the beginnings of
life, arrival of mankind and speculation on the future. Either
way there is clearly plenty of narrative progress going on,
but as John France suggests in his review the attempt to link
intended references to musical events can be counter-productive,
and it is better to allow one’s imagination free rein.
There is plenty to get one’s teeth into, and it will depend
a little on whether or not you appreciate music which is deliberately
constructed around textual associations - not because of the
directly ‘literal’ context, but since the music
is constantly crawling towards but never quite reaching its
narrative goals. It is in the nature of music not to be able
to express actual words or images, other than those which arise
in the imagination or derive from the personal associations
of the listening individual. This piece fails through being
too literal to the themes it is trying to convey, and the quotes
of hymns as ‘progress of man’s differing religious
philosophies’ jump out as being rather cheesy. When I
think of the kind of turmoil Ives could generate, or how the
subtle suggestions of nature work in pieces by Beethoven or
Messiaen - just to pluck two of a myriad of names, then I have
to admire but alas abstain from voting this work a success.
Time will show me correct or not, and it is only a personal
opinion; John France considered it ‘excellent’.
This is a worthwhile and substantial body of work which convinces
through the quality of its performances. John Ramsay is indeed
fortunate to have the support of such a fine string quartet,
and with an excellent recording this is a release which deserves
respect and attention.
see also review by John