After a career devoted to rock, Londoner John Ramsay has in
recent years turned to classical music. This is no cause for
alarm, however - Ramsay is not another Jon Lord or Paul McCartney,
but rather a retired scientist who made his name in geology,
keeping a foot from his student days onwards in the art music
door. This is the first CD of his music, all premiere recordings
by the renowned Fitzwilliam String Quartet, the same ensemble
that gave first performances west of the Iron Curtain of Shostakovich's
last three Quartets.
The Fitzwilliams were also the first to record Shostakovich's
complete Quartets as a cycle, and veterans Jonathan Sparey and
Alan George were part of those celebrated recordings. As it
happens, this is Sparey's final appearance: after 37
years' sterling service, he retired after recording the
First and Fourth Quartets - the latter dedicated appropriately
to the Fitzwilliams - leaving a younger Colin Scobie to record
the other two. In this recital they perform John Ramsay with
the same intensity and attentiveness they have previously accorded
Shostakovich. Ramsay is not Shostakovich and his four Quartets
are unlikely to find their way into the repertory of Russian
ensembles; yet with luck some of them will be taken up in the
wake of these recordings at least by British quartets looking
for interesting but audience-friendly material.
Ramsay's Quartets are fundamentally tonal, with a good
deal of chromaticism along the way, written in what many would
describe as a 'traditional' style, typified by
well-structured movements, the indication of tonality in the
title, the employment of orthodox forms and markings like 'scherzo',
'rondo', 'moderato' etc., and by
the abundance of melody. Ramsay is certainly no hobbyist, or
at least he does not sound like one. He was in his seventies
when he composed these works, and they are, consequently, deeply
considered, individual, serious, sculptured works. Their self-evident
intellectual grounding makes their instant approachability all
the more gladdening.
The immediately attractive First Quartet makes an ideal opener.
The set of variations on a traditional Scottish Gaelic theme
is particularly lovely, enhanced further by some delightfully
delicate playing by the Fitzwilliams. Alas, the theme tune is
called "Marie Bhodheach" by the Sasunnach
notes, which is neither Gaelic nor grammatical: the title is
in fact "A Mhàiri bhòidheach" ('Bonny Mary').
The brief third-movement funeral march of the 'Shackleton'
Quartet has a haunting beauty, the lachrymose mood of which
is reprised near the end of the final movement. The work is
named in memory of an older friend and colleague of Ramsay's,
not the great explorer Ernest, although the two were distantly
related. A mere quarter of an hour long, yet the Second Quartet
packs a considerable emotional punch, the pervasive melancholy
lightened only by a brief jaunty Allegro, flamenco
at the start of the finale.
The Third Quartet pays homage to Mozart in the first movement,
in particular his Quartet K.465, and the gentle dissonance typical
of that work, so surprising to 18th-century audiences, recurs
throughout the work, aided and abetted effectively by occasional
bitonality and rapidly alternating keys. The final movement
throws in for good measure a fugue based on the mathematical
Fibonacci Sequence, leaving the reader suspecting a dog's
dinner, whereas the listener will hear a 21st-century composer
proving that the string quartet as an artistic medium has a
lot of life in it yet, even using 'old-fashioned'
methods: this one is jam-packed with invention and energy.
According to the notes - unsigned, but presumably written by
Ramsay - the Fourth Quartet is a musical portrayal of "Darwin’s
work as a geologist and evolutionist". In fact a whistle-stop
history of evolution (!), it is about as programmatic as is
possible, as evidenced by the almost minute-by-minute commentary
supplied: "Lightning and thunder is heard (05.04) and the
first heavy raindrops arrive (05.41). The storm finally breaks
(06.03) and slowly subsides (06.55), with sunshine reappearing
(07.38)..." All of which makes it sound rather precious,
but that is not the case - Ramsay pays a powerful, imaginative,
emphatic and serene tribute to the genius of Darwin. Needless
to say, humanity manages in the end to wipe itself out, along
with all other life forms, giving rise to a cogitative epilogue
describing the barren beauty of a deburdened planet.
Other reviews of this release have tended to praise the sound
quality, but whilst it is reasonably good - intimate,
certainly, with no typical intrusion of the inhalations of the
first violin - it is also undeniably harsh-edged on occasion
and always slightly muddy: time for Métier to upgrade their
technology, maybe. The booklet is neat, informative and well
written. The geological cover photo, repeated magnified on the
CD itself, is ironic in a sense, in that Ramsay's biography
makes no mention at all of his whole other life.
Though a double-disc set, the running time only just exceeds
a single CD, but justice is restored by its one-disc pricing.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
See also reviews by John
France and Dominy