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CD Review

James MacMillan

Hyperion 68196

String Quartets

  • String Quartet #1 "Visions of a November Spring"
  • String Quartet #2 "Why is this night different?"
  • String Quartet #3
Royal String Quartet
Hyperion CDA68196
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James MacMillan is a Scottish composer born in 1959 who has steadily built a reputation, perhaps more "local" than international. He deserves to be better known, though. His music is varied (over 200 works: opera/musical theater; orchestral; choral, vocal; chamber and for piano), thoughtful and has an unmistakable honesty and sense of purpose. It was with the performance in 1990 of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Promenade Concerts that MacMillan really began to gain recognition. Commissions followed, the results of many of which are still in the repertoire. MacMillan's two strongest influences are his Roman Catholicism (both he and his wife are lay Dominicans) and his belief in the need for social justice… he has written works inspired by liberation theology, for instance. Evidence of Traditional Scottish music is also to be found in the composer's many works.

The three string quartets (played with style and perception by the Royal String Quartet) on this CD from Hyperion were written at roughly ten year intervals. They are in two, a single and three movements and last just over 21, 22 and 27 minutes respectively. Two other recordings of the First String Quartet are in the current catalog: by the Edinburgh String Quartet on Delphian 34088 and Emperor Quartet on Bis 1269; the latter also features the Second. While displaying aspects typical of MacMillan's very individual style, they also allow the listener to see the composer's development over those 20 years. It can safely be said, though, that MacMillan's music has been characterized by confidence and authority from the outset. In common with many of MacMillan's works, these scores suggest a narrative, a struggle, a sense that there is something to gain. And it is purely by the music's self-awareness, and controlled introspection that this should happen. Now, performers need not only to be aware of this aspect of MacMillan's language; but also need to avoid a purely linear or simplistic "unfolding" of themes.

The Royals (Izabella Szałaj-Zimak, violin; Elwira Przybyłowska, violin; Marek Czech, viola; Michał Pepol, cello), actually a Polish group, understand the subtlety required to achieve the right balance between what any one bar or phrase does and how it fits into the wider architecture which MacMillan crafts so well. Their playing never lacks attack or energy. But their skill with pauses, consistent tempi, superb phrasing in even the most hectic passages means that our experience is holistic and not frenzied. The "deformed" string effects and the potential for unsettling delivery have been totally internalized by the players. Surely their projection is just what MacMillan intended. Given the traditional intimacy (or at least the appeal to what is intimate in such a performance) of the string quartet, to have been able to convey anger, regret, determination in these works – as well as uncertainty and a sense of the perverse – is a significant achievement.

The first, entitled "Visions of a November Spring" dates from 1988 but was revised three years later. It was premièred by the Bingham Quartet in Glasgow in May 1989. Listeners perhaps unfamiliar with MacMillan's "directness" might mistake the angularity and tense aggression of the string writing for something lacking sympathy or caring. But listen again: there is no lack of gentility, even gentleness at times (towards the end of the second, slightly faster, movement [tr.2,], for example). There are restraint and reflection aplenty; as well as precision and an acknowledgement of the need for musical ideas and textures to bend, and not insist. The music most definitely does not push, or steam through at all costs, as might be the case in music with a similar edge by, say, Bartók. Although MacMillan himself reflected that this first String Quartet was…"Sheer frenzy, craziness", the Royals produce no "romp" or Stravinsky-like shattering of crystal. Rather, they respect the notion that contrast and antithesis can end in balance. Nor does their playing simply throw down opposites and expect us to synthesize them. They do all the musical work. They completely understand MacMillan's purpose.

"Why is this night different?" (Number 2) was written in 1998 for the Maggini Quartet; they gave it its first performance at the Wigmore Hall, London, in April of that year. Alluding to the Jewish Seder which commemorates the Israelites' flight from Egypt, the string instruments again seem to come to life, to assume enough physical and dynamic characteristics to be able to move and act in front of our eyes (or ears). This is no languid, lyrical curtain of euphony. Once again, the Royal String Quartet does not stop half way after deconstructing the musical ideas. They present us with a carefully-conceived whole. It already contains traces of the way in which MacMillan has chosen to resolve tensions and accommodate divergence. Both parties seem to believe that there is only one way to do so: directly through the music itself, and not by external reference. Perhaps it is easier to do this in the one movement. Yet MacMillan has multiple themes and thematic change in that one movement. Once more, the Royals have "encapsulated" the essence of the composer's drive and energy yet have managed to conceal how they did it. They ought to have done so through pointillism. But you can't see the individual components. And yet it's not impressionistic either.

The untitled Third String Quartet was written in 2007 for the Takacs Quartet, who premièred it at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, the following year. MacMillan returned to a more abstract, purely musical (as opposed to narrative) genre which might have referenced theology or history. It was written in the wake of the opera, The Sacrifice and his St John Passion. Yes, there are apparently disjunct and – as in his First and Second Quartets – detached gesture; with contrasting stasis. Taut stamina is at a premium. But to listen to this, the most recent of MacMillan's thoughts on the medium is to wonder how he has managed to write such an articulated work for strings where such qualities have an evident purpose and are not indulgently for their own sake. It has a beautiful ethereal ending which (although its softness and ever-ascending close aptly draws attention yet again to MacMillan's understanding of the interplay between music and silence) is whole. It unfolds of its own accord – thanks to the sensitivity of the Royals – as does a fern in the light and warmth. And at the same time reminds us of the variety of the composer's writing.

These accounts of MacMillan's string quartets, then, are skillful, perceptive, persuasive, communicative and full of a delightful mixture of nuance and drive without ever becoming rhetorical. The members of the Royal String Quartet have obviously soaked themselves in MacMillan's idiom. At the same time, they are offering us something fresh, dynamic and directed. The balance between strings is just as it should be. There are times (in the first movement of the third quartet [tr.4], for instance) where there seem to be more than four players. Yet the Royals are always in complete control. They do MacMillan a great service.

The acoustic of Potton Hall, Suffolk (where all three quartets were recorded in July 2017) is resonant and spacious. It narrowly avoids adding too much dimension when the intensity, focus and concentration of the music should command our attention – not the "event". The booklet sets the scene for those new to MacMillan and his approach to music. Its author described the works and there are ample remarks on the origins, style, awards and performing history of the Royal Quartet. It should need no more than a moment for MacMillan aficionados to decide to buy this expressive, technically brilliant and well-presented CD, the only one to collect all three of the composer's string quartets.

Copyright © 2018, Mark Sealey