John RAMSAY (b.1931)
String Quartet no.1 in D minor (2001) [21:27]
String Quartet no.2 in E minor "Shackleton" [16:49]
String Quartet no.3 in C (2004) [26:40]
String Quartet no.4 "Charles Darwin" (2009) [21:35]
Fitzwilliam String Quartet (Lucy Russell (violin I); Jonathan Sparey (violin II); Colin Scobie (violin II); Alan George (viola); Heather Tuach (cello))
rec. St Martin's Church, East Woodhay, England, 15-18 March 2010; 30 January-2 February 2011 (nos. 2-3)
METIER MSV 28528 [38:32 + 48:29]
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.
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The intellectual grounding of these quartets makes their instant approachability all the more gladdening.

See also reviews by John France and Dominy Clements