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Beamish: Symphony No 1, Concertos / Marwood, Bezaly, Brabbins

Beamish / Marwood / Bezaly / Rsno / Brabbins
Release Date: 08/31/2010 
Label:  Bis   Catalog #: 1601  
Composer:  Sally Beamish
Performer:  Anthony MarwoodSharon Bezaly
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEAMISH Violin Concerto. 1 Symphony No. 1. Callisto 2 1 Anthony Marwood (vn); 2 Sharon Bezaly (fl); Martyn Brabbins, cond; Royal Scottish NO BIS 1601 (78: 35)

In Fanfare 31:6 I reviewed an earlier release in BIS’s excellent traversal of the music of Read more the English composer Sally Beamish (b.1956). That disc contained the Viola Concerto No. 2 and other recent works; by contrast, this new disc includes two of her earliest orchestral pieces: the Symphony No. 1 of 1992 and the Violin Concerto written two years later. (Beamish started late as a composer; in a previous life she was well known as a viola player.)

Beamish tends to start from a specific external basis for each work—a poem, a novel, or even a place—and in her mature works this usually dictates not only the content of the piece but also its form. That is not to say her music is necessarily pictorial, as she herself describes it, but to find your way through a Beamish work you need to know something about the program. While her textures are fascinating of their own accord (not her themes so much), the dramatic arc of the music is always dictated by the specific concept. Familiarity takes time, and initially her music may feel elusive in spite of its virtues of clarity and point. All I can say is, perseverance is worthwhile.

Callisto , a work for flute and orchestra from 2005, is the prime example here. It is based on poet Ted Hughes’s reimagining of Ovid’s story of Callisto, and the work depicts the mythological character’s journey from human being to constellation. As Callisto’s manifestations change, so do the solo instruments: Alto and bass flutes as well as piccolo are swapped for the regular flute. The atmosphere created by the composer’s transparent orchestral textures tends to be cool, punctuated by dramatic outbursts. (This is also true of the other works on this disc.) Needless to say, Bezaly’s artistry is beyond criticism; the concerto was written for her and she owns every note of the solo part. The same performance previously appeared on a Bezaly compilation CD and was reviewed in Fanfare 33:4.

Similar praise must be heaped upon Anthony Marwood, the English violinist who recently scored a triumph with Thomas Adès’s Violin Concerto and is the progenitor of the Beamish concerto recorded here. He maintains his pure, centered tone throughout the turmoil (and repose) of the work, never stinting on power when it is called for. The basis for the concerto is Remarque’s World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front , so there is a palpable sense of the soloist as lone protagonist: raging against circumstances in the fierce opening, filled with longing and introspection among the “sad bugles” of the heartfelt second movement. At this stage in her career Beamish had not yet eschewed accepted structures, so despite its literary origins the concerto falls into three movements that simplistically could be described as fast/slow/fast—though within that format lie several contrasting episodes.

The somewhat meandering Symphony No. 1 is described by the composer as “a double set of interlinked variations” on a Scottish theme. Here one really notices Beamish’s orchestral mastery, so it is intriguing to read in her self-effacing notes that she rescored the work after Harrison Birtwistle suggested she create a more individual sound and not limit herself to “what works.” Good advice in this case; as a one-time orchestral musician Beamish clearly had a practical knowledge of what does and doesn’t work to begin with. As a first symphony it is a considerable achievement: less intractable and easier to navigate than the Scottish-inspired symphonies of Peter Maxwell Davies, and sensitively played here by Martyn Brabbins and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Beamish is a composer of imagination and clarity. As I have indicated, that does not make her an instant communicator in the way of, say, Jennifer Higdon, but the performances and recording quality are of such a high standard that it is a pleasure to keep returning to her music, and learning more about it each time you do. The violin and flute concertos on this disc are, as another Englishwoman once said, a very good place to start.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Violin by Sally Beamish
Performer:  Anthony Marwood (Violin)
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1994 
Concerto for Flute "Callisto" by Sally Beamish
Performer:  Sharon Bezaly (Flute)
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2005 
Symphony no 1 by Sally Beamish
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1992 

Sound Samples

Violin Concerto: I. Allegro
Violin Concerto: II. quarter note = 60
Violin Concerto: III. Allegretto
Callisto: I. and Diana
Callisto: II. and Juno
Callisto: III. and Arcas
Symphony No. 1

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