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Earl of Kelly
A.C. Mackenzie
Thomas Wilson
J.B. McEwen

The Edinburgh Quartet
rec 2000
MERIDIAN CDE 84445 [66.07]
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Scottish musical thought has seldom found expression in the sophisticated medium of the String Quartet.

The four composers represented here, in the first recording of these quartets, are however, expressive of the classical, romantic, impressionist and 'modern' - without having any need to resort to the meretricious tartan gewgaws that so often, posing as nationalism, debase Scottish culture.

Culture is appropriate here, for these works demonstrate that recognition of a nationalist element may also find expression in philosophical as well as folk-based material. There is a wide culture too in the informative - indeed penetrating - sleeve notes by John Purser (I wonder how many of us know that Sir Alexander Mackenzie's niece is Dame Rebecca West?).

In my estimation Mackenzie's Quartet is the most significant work - the notes revealing a sensual side to the austere Principal of the Royal Academy - a "man with a notable gift of frenzy" said Bax - an enlightened, progressive musical educator. His musical language, here aged only 21, is demonstrably un-Scottish, with its allegiance to Schumann, is genial and endearing sometimes with a Beethovenian intensity - and played by the Edinburgh Quartet as if it had been written for them. It is music that clearly foreshadows that calibre of chamber work that was soon to emerge from the young John Ireland, Bridge and Howells.

Why such elegant music as the Quartet of Thomas Erskine, Earl of Kelly (properly Kellie, as Kellie Castle latterly the home of Sir Hugh Lorimer, is not far from my window) should be receiving its first outing on disc - and why (or so it seems) only the Reid Orchestra in Edinburgh should occasionally feature the music of one who in the mid eighteenth century was thought a "central figure in British musical life" - is really surprising. It is extremely accomplished, besides being delightful music. J B McEwen's music, neglected for years, is now finding acclaim (recently having recorded the Miltonic Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity). Impressionist as a description of this music more colourful than a grey Galloway landscape might inspire, is however less important than the indication, in Purser's notes, that the music has more to do with the composer's recovery from nervous trouble. There are some lovely sounds, particularly in the sea-haunted slow movement, with its flashes of sunlight through the haar - but I would like to hear his ten other quartets before thinking this entirely representative.

Tom Wilson's Quartet - his fourth - is a different proposition, its philosophy argued in uncompromising terms - its pugnacity perhaps Scottish - but musically organised in a single meticulously crafted movement. This is not music one may explain away in figurative terms - it is cogent, organised into a complex structure whose elements consist of opposing, aggressive forces - a 'flyting' perhaps its most Scottish element? Progress of the argument is periodically anchored by great repeated chords, whose antithesis is expressed in sighing, drooping chords. At almost exactly the half-way mark, a point of rest seems to be achieved, but aggressive figures again disturb the equlibrium and disputation continues, ending, as Purser points out "when it is exhausted .... because the balance of opposing energies has been reached".

This CD is well worth having - the glorious Peploe oil of Barra on the sleeve is a bonus!

Colin Scott-Sutherland.

see also Thomas Wilson Website

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