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James MacMILLAN.
Epiclesis - concerto for trumpet and orchestra (1993 revised 1998);
Ninian - concerto for clarinet and orchestra (1996).
John Wallace (trumpet)
John Cushing (clarinet)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Alexander Lazarev.
BIS-CD-1069 (DDD) (61.15) World premiere recordings.
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MacMillan's Roman Catholicism is evident in these two concertos.

The Trumpet Concerto is subtitled Epiclesis, a Greek word for invocatory prayer but seldom is the attitude of prayer depicted in the music. The music is technically demanding and, at times, savage which, again, does not lend itself to the concept of prayer. The work begins and ends senza misura which means the absence of strict time which may indicate improvisatory prayer. The use of a thunder-sheet is very effective which may symbolise the Presence of God, the Great power. But the music is very harsh and dramatic, almost frightening but very impressive. Even the slow music, which may hint most at prayer, is constantly interrupted by gratuitous violence. The use of two antiphonal trumpets in a wild-dance like section may suggest the Trinity which doctrine has divided the Christian church for almost as long as there has been a Christian church. The dance music does not accord with the title of the piece either although the music is, at times, simply terrific.

It is difficult to know where this music is going. Its violence is impressive and the plainsong-style passage is glorious but does the whole gel together or is it episodic and therefore unsatisfactory as a piece. That it is in one continuous movement of 25 minutes may increase confusion. The performance is electric with a wonderful sound as well. But the music is emotionally exhausting and often uncomfortable. It is very intense and very noisy.

Nynia, or Ninian, is a fourth century saint accredited with many miracles and worked in Galloway where MacMillan was born. Ninian builds upon Macmillan's Galloway Mass. The concerto has three movements. The first is entitled The reiver and the bull depicting a skirmish on the England/Scotland border where rustling was attempted under the cover of darkness. The second movement, Pectgils, tells of a crippled boy who, with his family, were disciples of Ninian and who was healed at Ninian's tomb. The last movement is A Mystical. Vision of the Christ-child and is as long as the preceding two movements.

MacMillan has become very well known for his political and religious views to which, of course, he is perfectly entitled. But they seem to inhabit his music whereas music is probably best when it is non-political and has no hidden agendas.

Again I could not readily see the form of the music although the Clarinet Concerto is better structured and therefore a more satisfying piece. But it is the episodic nature of the music with its many stops and starts which I, and others, will find somewhat off-putting. The constant change of metre is a little disconcerting as well. These outbursts may correspond with the composer's mental outbursts and or anguish over the injustices he sees politically and religiously in Scotland.

There is much to admire in these concertos but I am left with the feeling that I have just been a guest at Bates's Motel in Hitchcock's film Psycho.

But to return to the safer haven of the Clarinet Concerto, the music is wonderfully alive and liquid. However, the awful snarling brass sounds were too much. The hymnody music was good and the soloist is totally admirable. The tessituras are a delight and reminiscent of Paul Patterson's glorious Clarinet Concerto. Gripping stuff, but..................

David Wright

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