Towards the Far Country – Ian Wilson

Towards the Far Country – Ian Wilson

A review by composer Jane O'Leary of a CD of Ian Wilson's string quartets.

towards the far country – Ian Wilson
Performed by the Vanbrugh Quartet
(Black Box Music BBM 1031)

The most recent in the ‘20th Century Irish’ series of recordings by Black Box Music features the first three string quartets of Ian Wilson. Dating from 1992, 1994 and 1996, the three pieces offer a good representation ofl this composer’s writing for strings, and the disc provides a welcome foil for an earlier one of Wilson ‘s piano trios, recorded by Kammerspiel for Timbre Records (1997). For a composer just 36 years old, Wilson has written a surprising number 0f quartets, with his fifth quartet, ’ … wander, darkling … ‘ commissioned by Leitrim County Council and premiered by the Vogler Quartet last August. It is a medium that many composers shy away from and can be a frighteningly revealing one. The Belfast born and educated composer has established a strong foothold in the Republic in the last few years with an active residency in Leitrim complementing his growing international reputation. The performers on this disc are the Vanbrugh Quartet – an ensemble with a strong history of commitment to the work of Irish composers since their own residency in Ireland began in 1986. WiIson’s first and third quartets were commissioned and premiered by the Vanbrugh. Winter’s Edge was previously recorded by the Vanbrugh in 1993 and issued on the Chandos label along with quartets by Walter Beckett, Brian Boydell and John Kinsella. It is interesting to compare the two recordings of this work, which differ in subtle ways – the earlier one somewhat warmer and more resonant in sound, the new one more reflective in interpretation. The Black Box recording is crystal clear, very fresh and totally convincing. Combining the Vanbrugh’s typically sensitive performance with the reliably expert ear of executive producer Chris Craker is a recipe for success.

Two of the quartets featured have a strong visual inspiration. This is characteristic of a number of Wilson’s compositions and seems to provide him with an effective starting point for creativity. The second quartet, The Capsizing Man and other stories relates specifically to five sculptures by Giacometti. The third quartet, Towards the Far Country, has been inspired by seven specific works of the Swiss artist Paul Klee, although in this case the music is not subdivided into contrasting movements but moves continuously through nearly a half hour of time. In some cases, particularly in the second quartet, the visual references are so strong that it leaves the listener searching for the original image. It is such an inherent part of the music that it raises the question of whether or not it is a missing link to its totality. I found myself wishing that the relevant visuals could have been reproduced in the accompanying booklet. On the other hand, Wilson’s music tends to create very strong musical shapes and perhaps the visual aspect would be of interest to choreographers or film-makers for further interpretation.

Wilson writes skilfully for strings and clearly admires the expressive capabilities of the instruments. He writes beautiful long lines and moves smoothly and effortlessly through musical space as he transforms his material. The music is thoughtful and introspective rather than provocative or disturbing. The composer refers to spiritual and narrative aspects of his work, both of which give it an appeal for listeners from other artistic disciplines or from less specialised backgrounds. He has defined ‘faith and life’ as the principal subjects of music. But in the end, it is the music itself which must speak.

The first quartet (thirteen minutes long), sandwiched between the other two on this disc, is for me the strongest musically. In the composer’s own words it is ‘the most concise of the three’. He says also that the opening chord was in his head for some weeks before he began writing, and the strength of the opening statement is for me the most striking musical image of the entire disc. The energy of those opening moments resonates long after the performance has ended. Wilson skilfully moves from the explosive opening to a restrained calmness. The third quartet is the longest at nearly half an hour, which creates a challenge for both composer and listener. The second (twenty minutes) suffers from constraints within the single movements; while the material remains consistent to a particular motif, its repetitiveness occasionally calls out for further musical development.

The winning points of this disc are the excellent performances of the Vanbrugh Quartet, the superb string writing of the composer, and the wonderfully clear sound quality. It is more than a useful archive recording and should be used as an introduction to contemporary string quartet writing as well as to Irish composers. Black Box have missed an opportunity to make use of their booklet to promote the complete ‘Irish Composers Series’ – happy listeners should be enticed onwards in their search for something new. Perhaps the discrete reference to ‘’ on the cover is thought to be sufficient. It seems a shame too that the Vanbrugh Quartet, such a crucial element in the whole process, are not even named on the outer covers, which are visible to the potential buyer. But these discs are meant to focus on composers, and in a world where composers are generally the more invisible component in the creation of music, that’s not a bad thing!

First published in JMI: The Journal of Music in Ireland, Vol. 1 No. 2 (Jan–Feb 2001), pp. 8 – 9.

Published on 1 January 2001

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