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Sally BEAMISH (b. 1956)
String Quartet No. 1 (1999) [18:35]
String Quartet No. 2 Opus California (2000) [10:48]
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

String Quartet in C Minor Op. 18 No. 4 1798-1800) [23:19]
Emperor String Quartet
rec. June 2004, Weston Church, Hertfordshire. DDD
BIS CD-1511 [53:42]
Sally Beamish Interviewed by Christopher Thomas 2004

Sally Beamish’s now substantial catalogue of work includes music for virtually every major genre. The string quartet however is a medium that she has only explored in latter years. This is all the more surprising given that Beamish’s initial career was as a professional viola player and that she has previously acknowledged the string quartet as being particularly close to her heart. Yet it was as recently as 1999 that she wrote her First Quartet with the Second, Opus California quickly appearing the following year.

Her adopted home in Scotland has been a major influence for some years now but in the Quartet No.1 she takes her cue from a diverse range of cultures, drawing them together in a captivating musical discourse. This is bound together by her use of fragments of material taken from her 1988 setting of poems by the Ukrainian Irina Ratushinskaya.

As is entirely characteristic of Beamish’s music, musical gestures are rarely created for their own sake. Rather there is a sense that every note has been thought through and that every detail of the music has its own rightful place in the completed creation. Consequently the music exhibits a textural and cerebral clarity that serves to underline its obvious and often touching integrity and openness of spirit.

Cast in four movements, Beamish states that the first conjures images of North America, of open spaces accentuated by the open intervals of the initial declamatory call to attention. This soon subsides into more reflective mood whilst still underpinned by the intervallic motif of the opening. The Allegro second movement - the scherzo in all but title - is influenced by Ukrainian folk singing and juxtaposes passages of dance-like rhythmic energy that occasionally recall Bartók. There are also simpler, more restrained, passages unified in a rondo structure. Beamish describes the third movement (Lento) as a Turkish lament. The affecting simplicity of the chordal opening bars dominate much of the movement though this is overrun at its heart by the eastern influence of the solo violin. The chords of the opening ultimately return to close the movement in quiet contemplation. In the final Allegro Beamish transports her listener to Africa. The oscillating violins of the first bars give way to more astringent dance rhythms that reveal the African influence in starker relief before the music ultimately fades away to silence.

Geographical elements also dominate the Second Quartet Opus California, written to a commission from the Brodsky Quartet in 2000. At a little under eleven minutes for its four movements this is a more fleeting affair than the eighteen and a half minutes of the First Quartet. It takes as its starting point Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 4, the work that shares this disc and which Beamish says "captured my imagination when I played in my first string quartet at the age of fourteen".

Beamish takes Beethoven’s first subject, first bridge passage, second subject and second bridge passage and uses them as the basis for each of the four movements. The bridge passages are nattily used in the second and fourth movements to describe two differing American bridges, the first man-made in the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The second is the natural bridges of a rock formation on a Santa Cruz beach.

Brief though they are, each of the contrasting movements are highly entertaining. The first, "Boardwalk", jaunty and rhythmically colourful, the Golden Gate mysterious as viewed from a plane through the shifting mist of early morning. Dreams Before Lullabies is a touching, gently rocking song for an unborn baby. The jagged, energetic rhythmic patterns of the finale reflect the strange natural structures of the Santa Cruz rocks before a fleeting reference to the opening of the quartet brings it to a close.

The Beethoven Op. 18 No. 4 is sandwiched between the two Beamish quartets and sensibly placed to precede the Beamish Second that bears Beethoven’s melodic stamp. Of the six quartets that comprise the Op. 18 set this was the only one Beethoven wrote in a minor key. The rich and overtly dark romanticism of the opening movement is captured in suitably hued tones by the Emperor Quartet. Aside from a slight lack of playfulness at the outset of the Andante scherzoso it’s a beautifully executed performance, marked by wonderfully observed dynamic contrasts and real gypsy bravura in the breathless closing bars of the final Allegretto.

I first came across the Emperor Quartet a few years ago when they released their excellent recording of the William Walton Quartet on Black Box review. At the time I was struck by the powerful commitment of their playing, a feature clearly brought to bear here once again in no short measure. Add to that two immensely enjoyable quartets from Sally Beamish, whose music BIS continue to champion with admirable dedication. The results speak very clearly for themselves.

Christopher Thomas




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