Beamish (The) Seafarer

A northern light shines through Beamish’s inventive, imaginative music

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Beamish (The) Seafarer

  • Concerto for Viola and Orchestra No 2 'The Seafarer'
  • Whitescape
  • Sangsters

From 1998 to 2002 Sally Beamish enjoyed a four-year dual residency with the Swedish and Scottish chamber orchestras. The compositional results included this trio of orchestral works, which are among her best: there’s the kind of creative confidence and certainty, couched in unmistakable personal tones, which, in assured performances, well recorded, makes for a first-rate CD.

The common factor lies in the way all three works respond to the chilly essences of very northern landscapes. The earliest, Whitescape (2000), is particularly bold in suggesting the monstrous in nature (it has links with Beamish’s Mary Shelley opera), and is also impressively direct in expression, regularly cutting back on tendencies to elaborate its material and setting its strong, stark climax in a forbidding but never merely austere context.

More impressively still, the Second Viola Concerto (2001) takes a fresh look at the genre’s standard three-movement form. Beamish makes reference to an Anglo-Saxon poem which sets the travails of seafarers, aware of storms and the cries of birds, alongside visions of heavenly life after death. Against this background she charts a progression from brooding, rhapsodic material, within which quirky contrasts, percussion prominent, make highly effective incursions, towards a kind of repose – not exactly serene in spirit, but founded in rich, lucid harmony. This fine work has the added benefit of Tabea Zimmermann’s marvellously characterful performance.

Sangsters (2002) is also rooted in a poem – a modern one in Scots – which shows how birds, seals and humans adapt to nature and celebrate their different worlds. The second of the three movements is marginally less characterful and cogent than the rest, but for the most part Beamish sustains the high level of invention and imagination which the disc as a whole embodies. No praise is too great for the excellence of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and their conductor Ola Rudner: never has musical northern-ness seemed more inviting!

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