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

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