Beamish: Violin Concerto: Calisto; Symphony No. 1

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COMPOSERS: Beamish
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Violin Concerto: Calisto; Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: Anthony Marwood (violin), Sharon Bezaly (flute); Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
CATALOGUE NO: BIS CD-1601

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Those who’ve already met Sally Beamish as a composer may be in for a shock. The Violin Concerto is an extraordinarily angry, sharp-edged score. Beamish wrote it after Birtwistle advised her not to limit her soundworld to what she thought would ‘work’ – or as Martin Luther once put it, ‘If you’re going to sin, do it wholeheartedly.’ Good advice: the result is remarkably exhilarating and dramatically cogent. 

Finding out that the Concerto was inspired by Erich Maria Remarque’s famous anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front is enlightening, but it isn’t necessary to know this to be caught up in it. The performance is stunning from all concerned, as is that of the flute concerto Callisto.

Actually ‘flutes concerto’ would be more appropriate as the wonderful Sharon Bezaly plays alto and piccolo as well as the standard instrument. While Callisto is more tone poem-like in conception (Ovid is the inspiration this time), it’s still easy to enjoy this gorgeous piece just as a fluid sequence of vibrant musical images. 

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The First Symphony begins beautifully, with one of those hushed musical landscapes Beamish conjures so poetically. If in the end this supposedly more abstract piece feels less coherent than either of the two programme-connected works, it’s still hard to believe that this was Beamish’s orchestral debut. Stephen Johnson