John Ramsay (born 1931) is an interesting character. A cellist and composer, his music is essentially tonally based, appealing to the ear, but not without a more ascerbic side, and also capable of some depth. The influence of Bartók in the First Quartet is clear in the driving, asymmetric rhythms of the first movement (a movement that somehow seems prematurely curtailed). This is a spirited performance by the Fitzwilliam Quartet, who also find depth in the second movement variations on a Gaelic theme.

Ramsay’s Second Quartet is dedicated to Robert Milner Shackleton (1909-2001), a personal friend of the composer’s and a Professor of Geology. The first movement, styled as a medieval dirge, is simple yet effective. The surprise inclusion of flamenco in the finale serves to throw the blacker majority of the work into high relief. The Third Quartet is subtitled ‘Homage to Mozart K465′. The tribute of the opening to Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ is immediately obvious; Ramsay soon takes the music on an imaginary journey of what might have been. The booklet notes suggest the influence of Martinu in the second movement (wholly believable, aurally, in this poignant yet gentle outflowing). Very affectingly played, this leads to a ‘poly-Scherzo’ (actually three polymetric Scherzos in one), where the slightly dry recording seems emphasized. The fourth movement takes us back to dirge, and the most dissonant music so far. The finale is a playful fugue that uses the Fibonacci series to generate material both harmonic and rhythmic.

Finally, commissioned by the 2009 Cambridge Darwin Festival, and dedicated to the present performers, the Fourth Quartet is a single 20-minute span. There is a programme (centering on evolution, unsurprisingly), but just how necessary this is, is up for debate. The music ‘solidifies’ into a motto theme. Thereafter the programme is fairly specific, perhaps naively so, although the integration of musical material representing various religious elements (Hebrew, Christian and Muslim) is of interest. The final section includes a ‘war fugue’, in which the conflict is graphically (again, naively) documented in sound.

—Colin Clarke