Classical Lost And Found

Remember that Spanish lawyer we told you about who writes music on the side (see the newsletter of 19 December 2011)? Well here’s a British geologist with similar moonlighting proclivities! In addition to his scientific pursuits, London-born John Ramsay (b. 1931) took up the cello at age eighteen, and has since gone on to compose several works. These include four string quartets that make their recording debut on this new 2-CD album from Metier, which is offered as a “twofer.”

While the music is intellectually challenging, it’s also very approachable, making for one of the most interesting chamber releases to appear in some time. What’s more, all four are played by the Fitzwilliam Quartet, whom most will remember for their legendary performances and recordings of Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) quartets.

Written in 2001, the four-movement first quartet begins with an allegro that immediately catches the listener’s attention. We’re told in the informative album notes its shifting rhythmic patterns have Magyar associations. It couldn’t be more different from the next moderato , which is a lovely theme and variations whose subject is a Gaelic folk song.

The following scherzo has animated outer sections surrounding a subdued center that’s even more Eastern European sounding than the first movement. It recalls those folk ditties so frequently quoted by Bartók (1881-1945) and Kodály (1882-1967). It concludes in spirited fashion only to be followed by the sad and gloomy lento introductory measures of the finale. But the mood suddenly brightens as the movement becomes a busy rondo , ending this immaculately structured quartet on a radiant D major chord.

The second quartet subtitled “Shackleton,” which was written in memory of the composer’s recently deceased friend and colleague Robert Millner Shackleton (1909-2001), presumably dates from between 2001 and 2002. Also in four movements, the opening moderato is based on an insistent baleful motif that conjures images of the Grim Reaper swinging his terrible scythe. A sense of bereavement persists in the following exotically sinister adagio , and lachrymose funeral march (LF) with its plaintive plucked perambulatory accompaniment.

We get a temporary suspension of grief in the finale, which starts off with some fiery flamenco-accented passages laced with catchy two-against-three and three-against-four polyrhythms. But LF eventually returns, ending this quartet — and the first disc — in sadness over the loss of a great man.

The second CD begins with the third quartet of 2004, which is atypically in five movements. The first one is entitled “Homage to Mozart K465” and takes its cue from his (1756-1791) Dissonance Quartet (No. 19, K465; 1785). Its slow, harmonically queasy introduction, which is almost identical to Wolfgang’s, is followed by an allegro section. This begins with a jumpy syncopated theme (JS) plus countersubject that are developed and succeeded by a subdued mysterious idea. All these motifs are then skillfully combined, and the movement ends with references to JS.

The next adagio is based on a chromatically sinuous idea reminiscent of some giant bird gliding on thermals. On the contrary the scherzo is an antsy tripartite affair with outer sections having spastic rhythmic shifts and changes of key. The inner one stands out for a sprinkling of semitones which gives it an off-key preternatural character.

The keyed up tension that’s been building for the past three movements peaks in the polytonal, dissonance-ridden opening of the next andante . It’s then resolved in a cathartic concluding coda that ends the movement decidedly in C minor.

All this paves the way for the grand finale, which is a fugue with a subject and later harmonic structure that the composer has based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers (see the album notes and the newsletter of 10 May 2011). In so doing, Ramsay has come up with a contrapuntal gem that ends this intriguing quartet in splendid fashion.

The album concludes with the fourth quartet from 2009 subtitled “Charles Darwin.” It was commissioned for the 200th anniversary of the great English naturalist’s (1809-1882) birth, and is in one continuous movement [track-6] having three subsections. Each of these is programmatically related to a different aspect of Darwin’s pioneering work (see the informative album notes for details). And most of the scenario for the first two could be likened to the prehistoric earth sequence featuring Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) Rite of Spring (1913, revised 1947) in Walt Disney’s (1901-1966) 1940 version of Fantasia (see the newsletter of 6 January 2011).

The opening part envisions earth’s creation with swirling clouds of cosmic notes gradually coalescing into a mother earth motif (ME) [02:23] that will become an idée fixe serving to unify the piece. The music goes on to limn geological upheavals giving rise to landmasses and the atmosphere. Violent storms with torrential rains then break out [05:05] and abate, leaving sunny placid seas [07:38].

The next section begins with a “wriggly” theme [08:51], as Ramsay calls it, describing the emergence of primitive life forms from these Paleozoic waters. This is transformed into more sophisticated ideas representing the evolution of larger more complex animals [09:59], and eventually mankind [11:53].

Thematic references to three of the world’s most widely accepted religions, which seem less and less tolerant of one another, follow. The first, Judaism, is a Hebraic folk melody [12:53], which may remind you of the last movement from Shostakovich’s second string quartet (1944). The next, Christianity, is a hymn tune [13:04], and the last, Islam, some Eastern sounding number [13:22].

Increasingly discordant passages with rhythmic quotes [13:52] from “Mars, the Bringer of War” in Gustav Holst’s (1874-1934) The Planets then lead to a contrapuntal jihad [14:14], culminating in a nuclear holocaust [17:04] and the extinction of all life [17:33].

The third and final part is a reflective contemplation of things to come. It begins with sad ambivalent passages [18:35] containing allusions to ME in the minor. But nuclear winter finally dissipates as ME returns optimistically in C major. However, Darwin’s conclusions about the unpredictability of mankind’s future color Ramsay’s final thoughts, and he closes the quartet with ME once again in the minor. It’s a dramatic ending to an album of music by a composer with something new and interesting to say in a conventional way.

The performances by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet (FSQ) are impeccable! They display the same razor sharp precision, confidence and emotional commitment to the music which characterized their ever popular Shostakovich performances. And as far as testimonials to FSQ’s abilities are concerned, need we say more than they so impressed Dmitri he dedicated his last three quartets to them! *

Incidentally in 2010 after thirty-seven years with the FSQ, second violinist Jonathan Sparey decided it was time to hang up his bow, and was replaced by Colin Scobie. With Jonathan playing in the first and last of Ramsay’s quartets, and Colin the other two, it’s quite obvious the group has lost none of its standing.

The recordings were made on two separate occasions in 2010 (Nos. 1 & 4) and 2011 (Nos. 2 & 3) at St. Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, England. They project a consistent, well focused chamber-sized soundstage in a complementary acoustic that captures every nuance of the FSQ’s immaculate playing. The sound is exceptionally clear, and remains quite musical despite bright spots in the violins’ upper registers.

In conclusion it should be noted there are some isolated barely audible low frequency bumps most likely related to outside traffic. However, with music as captivating as this, these will probably go unnoticed even by any audiophiles.

* this is not actually the case, though the FSQ did give the Western premieres. – divine art)

—Robert E McQuiston