Classical Music Sentinel

Some composers write chamber music based on the fact that it will be played by a string quartet, pre-determined to a certain extent by that ensemble’s character and disposition. Others, like John Ramsay (b 1931), compose music to be performed by a string quartet. You may be thinking: “Well, isn’t that exactly the same thing”? It may seem that way on the surface, but to me these two approaches to composition are worlds apart. The first always sounds fabricated, shackled and unimaginative. The second technique on the other hand, like the music of John Ramsay , sounds real, involved and borne by a living spirit.

All four quartets were written over a short period between 2001 and 2009, and all display a strong grasp of the idiom, with neo-romanticism and a solid tonal structure as their points of origin. The String Quartet No. 4 (“Charles Darwin”) in particular, has captured my unswerving attention. It was written to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and dedicated to the Fitzwilliam String Quartet . It is laid out over 21 minutes as one continuous movement, depicting the evolution of the Earth, leading to the arrival of the human race and its destructive legacy, and ending with speculation as to the future of life on this planet. The opening Adagio , with its barely audible whispers, and plaintive and haunting 4-note motif, sets life on its evolutionary path, leading inexorably to man’s influence set to music as a War fugue , leaving the planet scorched and desolate. The quartet quietly ends with an Epilogue that seems to point to a glimmer of hope presented by the possibilities of future life on this barren planet. Strong subject matter to set to music for four instruments, but this is exactly the type of music making that supports my opening paragraph.

These masterful quartets are given here their world première recording by the distinguished Fitzwilliam String Quartet , who hold the honor of having performed the Western premières of the last three quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, and of being the first ensemble to record all fifteen of the Shostakovich quartets for Decca. Recordings that are still on the market today and still viewed by many as the standard to match. And maybe 40 years from now, these new recordings of the John Ramsay quartets will have acquired the same stature and respect.

—Jean-Yves Duperron