FOUR STRING QUARTETS BY IAN WILSON
Written during an 18-month spell around the turn of the millennium, the three numbered quartets on this disc represent a key period in Ian Wilson’s career. Although he made his home in Belgrade in 1998, a year later the NATO bombing campaign forced relocation to the Republic of Ireland. The Fourth, Fifth and Sixth quartets were written shortly after this and the Fifth, …wander, darkling, particularly bears the scars of this traumatic time.
It comes as no surprise that this is something of the ‘odd man out’ on this disc. Many of its sounds, drawing on a variety of extended playing techniques, may have found their origin in the anguish and anxiety of war and dislocation; but although several carry a special significance for the composer they should not be mistaken for having a programmatic function.
Where before Wilson had relied upon careful pre-compositional planning, the Fifth Quartet is the first work in which he fully embraced not only extended playing techniques, but a more intuitive, additive approach to structure. A handful of other works from this time, such as Abyssal for bass clarinet and ensemble, were written in a similar fashion, but what the composer took away from this period of deliberate experiment was the ability to move quickly between emotions and musical characters.
These experiences came to serve him well in the Sixth Quartet, In fretta, in vento. It was composed in the autumn of 2001 and its Italian title (which translates approximately as ‘hastily, into the air’) alludes to those victims of the World Trade Center attack who faced the terrible dilemma to throw themselves from the building or be burned alive. In the same period, Wilson’s grandmother, to whom the piece is dedicated, became seriously ill and died soon after the work’s completion. The piece is, therefore, coloured by a great sense of loss. But it captures also, from its very opening, an ethereal lightness, a moment in which, perhaps, the spirit lifts away from the body; the composer describes this duality as “looking backwards and upwards at the same time”. This conflict of simultaneous loss and spiritual hope is perhaps heard in the way the music rarely stays in one character for more than a few bars, but fidgets restlessly between various modes of torment and repose. The rapidly changing textures of the Fifth Quartet are still here but have been incorporated more fluidly, with a greater emphasis on the music’s underlying momentum. Ultimately, this momentum turns out to have been pulling the piece towards one place: the Bach chorale ‘O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid!’ (Oh sadness, oh sorrow!), heard hushed and in full at the end of the work.
The Fifth and Sixth Quartets may be two of the most emotionally charged results of the new perspectives in Wilson’s music, but it would be a mistake to relate too closely developments in his style and moments of great personal impact. In his Fourth Quartet, Veer, there are many hints at the direction in which his music was moving. The final bars of the first movement, in which a slow glissando in the violins hangs above two “dry, grating sounds” in the lower instruments, are only the most striking example. One might say that the composer was aware of this turn as it was happening; the work’s title is, after all, not only a pun on the German for ‘four’, but an acknowledgement that after it he ‘veered’ away from the style of this piece and others like it.
The work’s two movements draw inspiration from paintings by Edvard Munch, The Scream and Melancholy. Both make use of single pedal tones throughout and are drawn, therefore, towards expressive unity rather than the fragmentation of … wander, darkling. But in this work – one of very few in Wilson’s catalogue to have undergone revision – one can still sense the first signs of an emerging style.
Written a few years later, Lyric Suite stands slightly apart. Its title refers not to Berg, but to RTÉ Lyric FM which commissioned the work; in order to provide more flexibility for broadcast, it was written as a sequence of seven short movements, which can be played separately or, as is the composer’s preference, together. As a result the music has an epigrammatic character that is unusual in Wilson’s output. Many elements of the earlier quartets may be found in these brief elegies, but above all there is that intense melodic lyricism that has remained a constant factor in this composer’s music.
© Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2007
Ian Wilson was born in Belfast in 1964 and obtained the first D.Phil in composition to be awarded by the University of Ulster, which in 1993 commissioned his orchestral work Rise in celebration of the tenth anniversary of its foundation. His music has been performed and broadcast on six continents by artists such as the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Ulster, Belgrade Philharmonic and Norwegian
Radio Orchestras, the London Mozart Players and the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the Artis, Vogler and Vanbrugh Quartets, Lontano, Avanti! and Camerata Pacifica ensembles, Catherine Leonard and Hugh Tinney. Works have been performed at many festivals including the BBC Proms, Venice Biennale, ISCM World Music Days, the Heidelberg Spring, Cheltenham and Bath Festivals and the Ultima Festival in Oslo, where Running, Thinking, Finding for orchestra received the composition prize in 1991.
He has written over eighty pieces including two chamber operas, nine concertos, orchestral pieces, eight string quartets and many other chamber and vocal works.
In 1992 Ian Wilson was awarded the Macaulay Fellowship administered by the Arts Council of Ireland, and in 1998 he was elected to Aosdána, Ireland’s State-sponsored body of creative artists. From 2000 to 2003 he was AHRB Research Fellow in Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Ulster.
His music is published by Universal Edition (London) Ltd.
The Callino Quartet
The Callino Quartet is an internationally successful string quartet formed in 1999. They regularly broadcast on RTÉ Lyric FM and BBC Radio 3 and have been prize winners at both national and international competitions. They have toured in Norway and Holland several times and also appeared at festivals in Lithuania, Italy, Czech Republic and in Canada.
The Quartet has enjoyed collaborations with such diverse artists as the Vanbrugh, Vogler and Belcea String Quartets, double-bassist Edgar Meyer, pianist Barry Douglas, the Paris-Bastille Wind Octet and jazz guitarist John Abercrombie.
The Quartet has commissioned and premiered new works by Ian Wilson, Raymond Deane and Finnish composer Kimmo Hakola and worked closely with Edgar Meyer, Peteris Vasks and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh on their works for string quartet. They perform regularly throughout Europe, including appearances at the West Cork Chamber Music, Kilkenny, Cheltenham, Sligo New Music and Clandeboye Festivals, several concert tours of Scotland and the U.K. and also a Wigmore Hall debut performance in 2006. The Callino Quartet host their own annual festival over the Easter Weekend in Bantry, Ireland.
The Callino Quartet take their name from the Irish air ” Cailin cois tSuir a me” which means Girl by the River Suir. This song was the first Irish air to be notated and became known as the Callino manuscript. It is now kept in the library in Trinity College, Dublin.