Following on from John France’s review of this release I don’t intend repeating his full background outline on John Ramsey, who as a composer is a name which will be new to most of us, as it is to me. The Fitzwilliam Quartet is however a very familiar musical institution, whose Shostakovich quartet cycle on the Decca label is still very much a reference and pretty much unequalled in terms of grit, emotional character and communicative power. Prof. Ramsey is a friend of the ensemble, and the booklet outlines their association down to the String Quartet No. 4 , which was written for them.
Very professionally composed and full of musical interest, John Ramsay’s idiom is tonal and approachable but by no means ‘easy listening’, with plenty of intellectual rigour and complexity in its conception and structuring. The String Quartet No. 1 has some beautifully lyrical moments in its second Molto moderato movement. There’s much fascinating rhythmic creativity in its first movement and the Scherzo third, the close harmonies of which result in some intense dissonances which always resolve in one way or another. This also has a pastoral, folk-like central section which recalls Bartók, and the ‘snap’ rhythms carry through into the opening of the final movement.
Beethovenian four-movement structure is also a feature of the String Quartet No. 2 , subtitled for a friend of the composer. The first movement is an expressive memorial, as the booklet notes describe, a type of ‘dirge’, but one which moves through numerous variations and an elegantly restrained sense of climax. The second movement is almost an extension of the first, with high lines and harmonics spreading towards with an inexorable and weighty Adagio tread. The third movement is titled Funeral March , though this could arguably have applied to the first two as well. The last breaks into an Allegro, flamenco , closing with a mournful adagio molto . I’m in two minds about this piece. It is clearly a heartfelt and necessary expression for the composer, but I hesitate to say it succeeds as a concert piece in its entirety. These are four movements which could have been one powerful arch, but which instead roll into each other like sad syrup with a rather lonely rhythmic lump.
CD 2 opens more promisingly, and I like the String Quartet No. 3 ‘s combination of Mozartean grace and tonal scrunchiness in the first movement. The second movement meanders rather aimlessly, but with some closely worked-out thematic development and interaction. The third is a set of three Scherzi which skip along vivaciously, uniting and clashing in keys which lap together like interference waves in choppy water. This conflict of keys is brought to a head in the fourth movement, which explores dissonance in a way which at times feels like two quartets struggling together in a bag, or one quartet out of phase with itself. The final resolution of this into a C minor cadence lays the ground for a fugal finale which runs on the fuel of a Fibonacci Series of numbers. This is a movement full of energy and intrigue, but other than a fine quiet coda it’s neither an emotional roller-coaster or a show-stopper, more a technical tour-de-force.
The String Quartet No. 4 is a single movement in four sections, and ‘built on a program of [Charles] Darwin’s work as a geologist and evolutionist.’ The following text then gainsays this by indicating that it in fact has nothing to do with Darwin’s work and career but is more programmatic of the origins of the Earth out of chaos, the beginnings of life, arrival of mankind and speculation on the future. Either way there is clearly plenty of narrative progress going on, but as John France suggests in his review the attempt to link intended references to musical events can be counter-productive, and it is better to allow one’s imagination free rein. There is plenty to get one’s teeth into, and it will depend a little on whether or not you appreciate music which is deliberately constructed around textual associations – not because of the directly ‘literal’ context, but since the music is constantly crawling towards but never quite reaching its narrative goals. It is in the nature of music not to be able to express actual words or images, other than those which arise in the imagination or derive from the personal associations of the listening individual. This piece fails through being too literal to the themes it is trying to convey, and the quotes of hymns as ‘progress of man’s differing religious philosophies’ jump out as being rather cheesy. When I think of the kind of turmoil Ives could generate, or how the subtle suggestions of nature work in pieces by Beethoven or Messiaen – just to pluck two of a myriad of names, then I have to admire but alas abstain from voting this work a success. Time will show me correct or not, and it is only a personal opinion; John France considered it ‘excellent’.
This is a worthwhile and substantial body of work which convinces through the quality of its performances. John Ramsay is indeed fortunate to have the support of such a fine string quartet, and with an excellent recording this is a release which deserves respect and attention.