JOHN RAMSAY – Two Named SQs – Nos. 2 and 4

British composer John Ramsay [born 1931] wrote four string quartets, two of which are named.

String Quartet No. 2 is titled Shackleton. It refers not to Ernest Shackleton but to Robert Milner Shackleton, a personal friend of the composer, and a distant relative of the Antarctic explorer. The work is in four movements.

This short quartet opens with a lamenting passage. Long notes sustain a feeling of melancholy, which happens to be sustained throughout the work. There is a flowing melodic line, with the dynamics varying to good effect. The mood is slightly intangible, always seeming just out of reach. It finishes as it starts, with great feeling.

The second movement is slower than the first and begins with a somber background overlaid with a violin in a high register. The melody is yearning and again, long notes are featured in the accompaniment. A brief pause brings forth a solo cello which is joined by a stately melody. The melody ebbs and flows until we are left with two violins. Eventually, the viola plays a rhythmic figure in the background and the movement moves to its conclusion.

The next movement, which is very short, features a strummed cello. The violins again work with a melancholy melody, changing as the cello varies its harmony. The end comes with a slow transition into nothingness.

The finale is positively racing, compared to the previous movements. The melodies are strong and eventually they drift back into the default nature of the piece. A brief pause introduces a tempo which is carried by the whole ensemble. Melodies move through different moods until another pause ensues. Now we have a slow cello figure with sparse violin melodies in abundance. This passage has a certain inevitability and a final lament concludes the work.

It’s been a while since I have heard such a sustained melancholy in a string quartet. There is not much joy in its 16 minutes duration. This is a very poignant work.

String Quartet No. 4 is titled Charles Darwin, and is in one long movement of 22 minutes duration. It opens very quietly, so much so that it takes a little while to work out what is going on. Eventually a violin melody wanders over a sustained chord backing. A second violin comes into play. The mood gradually intensifies and the violin becomes a little frantic. A drop in the intensity and a long descending violin line introduces a new passage which is not unlike the recently reviewed John Tavener and Arvo Pärt.

A strong chordal section takes over. The dynamics change frequently and there is much movement in the textures. A strong melodic phrase comes into play, repeated at a diminishing volume. Now there is a peace, with the cello ruminating over a quietly sustained chord. A change in harmony brings a new mood. A folk-like melody in the violins is featured. This sounds very close to Simon and Garfunkel’s I’d rather be a hammer than a nail, the name of which escapes me for the moment. (El Condor Pasa?) This is picked up and repeated by the cello. The melody is retained, and variations on it are expressed. The cello repeats the melody at a quicker pace. Strangely, we then have a direct quote from All Creatures Great and Small. This is definitely English eccentricity.

The melody now assumes an ethnic character with more emotional intensity than has been heard up until this time. There are some dissonant chords and it’s a very busy section that lasts for quite a while. Previous phrases are repeated and it leads to a crescendo which wanes ever so slowly. A brief pause is followed by a very dramatic passage which gradually leads into peace. The first violin states a lonely melody and the piece appears to be looking to the conclusion. Two violins feature in a touching moment which begins to build, but soon fades into the distance.

These quartets, together with SQs Nos. 1 and 3 can be found on a 2-CD set String Quartets 1-4, by the Fitzwilliam Quartet, famous for their complete Shostakovich cycle. Bouquets to the Fitzwilliam for their incisive and elegant playing throughout.

The set is available on Amazon UK and can be found on Spotify. There are also many individual movements on YouTube.

Listenability: To me, these are slightly eccentric works, very much in the British tradition and quite interesting. Fabulous playing.

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