Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
7:46 AM 18th April 2023

Classical Music: Stone Salt & Sky - GAIA Duo

Stone Salt & Sky

Music for violin and cello by Sally Beamish, Rebecca Clarke, Elizabeth Maconchy and Duncan Strachan.

Rebecca Clarke: Grotesque ; Lullaby; Sally Beanish: Stone Salt & Sky*; Elizabeth Maconchy Duo (Theme and Variations); Duncan Strachan Thirteen Way of looking at a Blackbird*; GAIA Duo Antibes*. *premiere recordings

GAIA Duo Katrina Lee violin. Alice Allen cello

Delphian DCD34263

One of the joys of reviewing albums is that occasionally something completely floors me. This debut album is one example.

Delphian has an excellent reputation for producing recordings featuring new composers as well as promoting up and coming talented artists and this CD amalgamates everything that the label stands for.

It may sound an unusual pairing - violin and cello - it's not a permutation that has often been recorded; labels prefer the other violin and viola to make up a quartet but reading Dr Lucy Walker’s opening sentence in the booklet: ‘ Unconventional ensembles need to be creative,' I thought why not?

I was not disappointed as the GAIA Duo has produced an imaginatively inspired disc.

Katrina Lee, violin and Alice Allen, cello, formed the GAIA Duo 2019 and on this disc have curated a superb programme that spans just over a century of composers which are predominantly female.

Rachel Clarke’s (1886 – 1979 )interesting two pieces Grotesque and Lullaby are from contrasting ends of a spectrum. The first has a high-spirited dance like theme driven by an energy where the duo have to show technical dexterity and the gentle Lullaby was mesmerising. Clarke was a violist, like Sally Beamish, and her harmonic textures show understanding for writing string compositions. As Dr Walker notes it is spiced throughout with unexpected sharpenings, delivered with panache by the GAIA Duo.

The title of the disc Stone Salt & Sky is the name of Sally Beamish’s appealing and accessible work in which she depicts the Orkney Islands in the three movement work: 'Processional', 'Horizon' and 'Harbour Blues'. There are lots of Scottish and jazz influences and Processional calls for syncopation and the stamping of feet to recall 'the rumbustious annual ‘Ba Games’ in Kirkwall,' which gives the piece character.

The evocative 'Horizon' immediately draws this listener to the coast where an eerie wind is blowing along the beach as one looks out on to the expansive landscapes that Beamish wants us to imagine; she manages through use of folk idiom to create a superb representation of place. At times I could envisage birds skipping and swooping along the sea before climbing inland. The intensity that Lee and Allen create is haunting and poignant so much so I had to immediately listen to it again. The jazz infused third movement transported me from the beach to the harbour and an inn with everyone was gathered at the end of the day. The virtuosic semiquaver pages full of ‘blue’ notes as Dr Walker describes them and the syncopated rhythms showcase the artistic talent of the GAIA Duo. It's a work I shall listen to regularly.

Elizabeth Maconchy’s work Duo (Theme and Variations) starts soulfully with a ‘cell’ of three descending quavers, presented first in the cello as falling semitones before the pair start actively conversing with lots of different techniques to illustrate Maconachy's superb use of counterpoint.

GAIA’s own composition Antibes draws in the sight and atmosphere of Monet’s painting of the same name which hangs in the Courtauld. The intensity of the harmonic writing pulls the listener into a visual and sound palette. The resonance of the cello underneath the violin is hypnotic and, like the Beamish, transports the listener to a magical place. The Duo’s writing and performance has a magnetic quality constructed around different soundwaves and musical frequency and, like many of the pieces on this album, creates an acoustic assonance.

Finally on this album Thirteen Way of looking at a Blackbird by cellist composer Duncan Strachan led me to my copy of Wallace Stevens Collected Poems. Dr Walker points out the composition is based on Steven’s sequence of thirteen numbered stanzas - some as short as two lines, which I read alongside the performance. It is, for me, the composition that is the least metaphorical even with the last minute of actual birdsong effectively introduced as the instruments fade away.

The GAIA Duo has produced a lovely programme demonstrating outstanding musicianship, impressively meeting the technical demands whether it be bowing and trilling or through rhythmic energy.

Hopefully, it will also surprise and delight.

Gaia (Photo credit:
Gaia (Photo credit: