SCOTTISH STRING QUARTETS
Earl of Kelly
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!
see also Thomas Wilson Website