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Sally BEAMISH River. Viola Concerto; Cello Concerto "River" Tam Lin. Philip Dukes (viola) Robert Cohen (cello) Gordon Hunt (oboe) Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Ola Rudner   BIS CD-971
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Sally Beamish's music has been underrepresented on CD for far too long. This superb release puts right that omission but it does much more than that: it provides first-rate performances of three of her most dramatic and personal compositions in excellent digital sound.

The Viola Concerto is one of the composer's most personal works. The viola was her own instrument and the theft of it caused her to take up full-time composition. At the same time, she reassessed her life, realised she wanted to be a composer rather than an orchestral viola player, rediscovered her religion and had her first baby. All these factors came together as catalysts for the composition of the Viola Concerto. It is inspired by the New Testament story of Peter's denial of Christ, something that struck a chord with Sally Beamish as she felt she was denying her own calling all the years she played in an orchestra instead of composing. Thus, the concerto may be seen as a way of working out her own denials. It is a passionate work of great emotional intensity and a valuable addition to the repertoire for which viola players must be thankful. It begins with a depiction of the procession from Gethsemane and features the three denials of Christ (represented by the solo viola). These denials take the form of three cadenzas in which the solo instrument is questioned by another solo instrument from the orchestra - clarinet, cello and horn. The striking of Jesus is depicted by a whip crack, the timpani represent the crowing of the cock and the following passage, marked "tearfully", charts Peter's mixed emotions from desperation to hope. Even without a knowledge of the imagery which inspired it, Sally Beamish's Viola Concerto is a powerful work which communicates directly with the listener. The performers do the piece justice and it makes a thrilling start to the disc.

The Cello Concerto, subtitled "River" after the collection of poems by Ted Hughes which inspired it, is a more directly accessible work than the Viola Concerto. I was present at River's first performance with the soloist Robert Cohen and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Neville Marriner at the Barbican in 1996. The performance on this disc is even finer than that premiere, allowing the listener to hear every texture of the poetically constructed score. The instrumentation of the four movements is generally light and airy, with the exception of the sumptuously beautiful third movement "Low Water". If you want to sample one track from this disc to discover whether Sally Beamish's music is for you I would recommend you start with this ravishingly scored movement (track 4 on the CD), characterised by the velvety sound of rich and dark divided cellos.

"Tam Lin", based on the Scottish legend of that name, is another dramatic concerto in which the eponymous hero is played by an oboe soloist. The idea of transformation and variation attracted Sally Beamish to this story and thus the work takes the form of a series of extended and elaborate variations, in the manner of Richard Strauss's Don Quixote. The scoring of the work is unusual: no violins but a battery of percussion: anvil, tom toms, marimba, piccolo side drum, bell tree and wind chimes. The latter has an important role to play (an explanation of which is unaccountably missing from the programme notes in the CD booklet). At the very end of the piece when the Fairy Queen puts a curse on Tam Lin and his lover Janet, the wind chimes must be dropped on the floor - a hair-raising ending to the work. Another overtly dramatic piece, "Tam Lin" is almost a tone poem with soloist rather than a fully-fledged concerto and it makes a virtuosic conclusion to the disc.

This is a long overdue CD of some of Sally Beamish's most important scores. I hope it will the first of many releases of her orchestral music (there are two symphonies, a Concerto Grosso, a deeply moving violin concerto inspired by the anti-war novel "All Quiet on the Western Front" and many other works which merit a CD release (her monodrama "Monster" would make an ideal companion on disc to H K Gruber's "Frankenstein"). All the performances on this CD are as near perfect as one can imagine. The Viola and Cello Concertos are played by the very soloists who gave the first performances so there is little doubt as to the authenticity of those performances and Gordon Hunt gives a splendid account of the difficult solo oboe part in "Tam Lin". The Swedish Chamber Orchestra play to the manner born (Sally Beamish is their composer-in-residence and was no doubt able to advise the players on matters of style, tempi and dynamics). I look forward to many more of Sally Beamish's works form this source and I recommend the disc unreservedly.


Paul Conway


Paul Conway

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