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CD Review

James MacMillan

Works for Keyboard and Orchestra

  • A Scotch Bestiary (2003-04)
  • Piano Concerto #2 (1999-2003)
Wayne Marshall, organ & piano
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/James MacMillan
Chandos CHAN10377 63:46
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Terrific.

For those like me who think of him as an enfant terrible, James MacMillan, hard to believe, is now almost fifty. Furthermore, he has developed mightily as a composer. From an austerely simple style that got him lumped in with the so-called Holy Minimalists like Pärt and Górecki, he has moved to an austerely complex one, capable of expressing a wide range of emotion. I must admit that some of his works bored me to somnolence, striking me as too removed from a life truly lived and observed and too buried beneath conventional pieties, but not the newer ones. Indeed, the works on this disc seem to me to stand among the best scores of their time.

A Scotch Bestiary sports the following subtitle: Enigmatic variations on a zoological carnival at a Caledonian exhibition. From this, we see links to Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals, and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. I must admit that the Elgar link escaped me, unless it's an "unstated theme on a well-known tune" heard only in variation (my guess: Mussorgsky's "Great Gate of Kiev"). I could be wrong. The Saint-Saëns connection is apparent in the title itself. This is a musical bestiary, largely satiric in intent. The work divides into two large movements: "The menagerie, caged," a set of character-pieces with interludes representing the reader turning pages in the book, à la Mussorgsky wandering from picture to picture; "The menagerie, uncaged," a whirligig fantasia. To a large extent, it's also a display piece for organ and orchestra, although it lacks the byplay with the orchestra of most concerti. Indeed, few organ concerti come off in this way, perhaps because the organ itself is so much a "little orchestra" and tends to blend in, especially with the winds.

Still, the piece brims with interest. I happen to have a soft spot for animal fables – La Fontaine's Fables, Kipling's Just So stories, Gondowicz's Zoology, even Warner Brothers cartoons from the Thirties through the Fifties. Most of them turn out to be incisive commentary on human nature, usually satiric in mode. MacMillan proves no exception, nor does Saint-Saëns, come to think of it, if we remember the "pianists" and "wild jackasses" sections of Carnival. But where Saint-Saëns displays a gentle wit, MacMillan attacks with sharp teeth and lip-smacking relish. Indeed, it reminds me, in its bite, of Mahler's satiric songs. MacMillan hits many, many targets: "Scottish Patriots," "The Reverend Cuckoo and his Parroting Chorus," and "Jackass Hackass" (which contains a brilliant toccata for typewriters, piano, and bass), to name only the most obvious sections. The interludes themselves, based on the rhythm of Mussorgsky's opening to Pictures, get their own variations, some of them quite beautiful. I particularly liked one with percussion and harp. I've listened to Bestiary several times over the last few weeks and each time come up with different favorite parts. For that reason, like Mussorgsky's Pictures, it seems one of those "inexhaustible" works that can occupy you for years.

The fantasia second movement is a free-for-all. Themes and even sounds from the first movement jostle one another, leap out at you from the dark jungle. This is almost "nature, red in tooth and claw" – almost, but not quite. Along the way, we also get the horses of the Valkyrie, Strauss-and-Mahler alpine cows, and a whole mess of birds (and not just the cute birds, either). David Nice's liner notes make the point that most works of this sort – including Saint-Saëns and Mussorgsky – usually bind up the variation set in a highly-structured, often fugal, ending. MacMillan goes the opposite way. We begin in art and end in the chaos of real life.

The second piano concerto began (at least its first movement) as a sextet, and it sounds more like a chamber work than a concerto, even though the piano plays most of the time and for long stretches by itself. The first movement overflows with themes, far more than in the typical classical concerto: a lickety-split toccata, three tunes by 18th-century Scottish musician John French, a central meditation for the piano, and an enigmatic coda. Almost all the ideas are quick and lively, and MacMillan exploits them in contrast with the meditation. The movement proceeds not by classical argument, but by some spiritual program of dramatic confrontation. MacMillan begins with what you think high spirits, but the emotive meaning very quickly changes. The fast sections become more frenzied and brutal, the meditation more troubled and fragile. MacMillan dedicates the concerto to the great poet Edwin Muir and has admitted the inspiration of Muir's poem "Scotland 1941," an elegant, powerful tirade against materialism and false nationalism among the Scots. MacMillan's movement thus seems a musical counterpart, with the quick sections whirling without point, spiraling out of control, and the meditation becoming increasingly anxious and questioning.

The second movement, "shambards" (from Muir's "mummied housegods in their musty niches,/Burns and Scott, sham bards of a sham nation), mulls over two ideas: things that sound like Scottish folk song and the Mad-Scene Waltz from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, based, of course, on Sir Walter Scott's Lucy of Lammermoor). In MacMillan's treatment, the waltz becomes a bit cheesy and plays off the beauty of the folk tunes. The folk tunes themselves degenerate into slightly inebriated sentimentality before coming back to their wildflower loveliness, but they are overwhelmed by the resurgence of the Lucia waltz, which becomes more insistent, until it collapses from its own weight. The movement ends with dead-march "drum rolls" from the bass notes of the piano, which lead directly to the finale, "shamnation." A manic, furious reel explodes with stampings from the piano and obsession from the solo violin. More and more instruments join in and the reel becomes darker and darker. Occasionally, the bright light of a country dance breaks through for a few seconds, but on the whole the reel takes on a martial character, with screams, drumbeats, and whistling arrows from the orchestra. As it proceeds, it winds the listener ever more tightly until, out of nowhere, the Lucia waltz breaks in for no good reason (Scotland tamed?), inaugurating the cadenza. But the reel returns, ending in the solo piano essentially running off the rails, over a precipice. The concerto ends abruptly, in the middle of things, and I found myself mentally gasping for breath. I can't praise this concerto highly enough.

Nor can I praise Wayne Marshall as he deserves. In both works, MacMillan has given him a part that doesn't have the glory a Tchaikovsky concerto bestows on a soloist, but Marshall pulls off heroic feats time and time again, more so in the piano concerto than in the Bestiary, but he has his moments in the latter score as well. The BBC Philharmonic under the composer just plays the devil out of these works. A poor performance would let the music degenerate into shapeless goo, but these readings never let their dramatic purpose disappear. The occasional chaos has a point. As far as I'm concerned, one of the best of the year.

Copyright © 2007, Steve Schwartz