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James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
MacMillan Series - Vol. I
A Deep but Dazzling Darkness (2001-02) [23:49]
Í (A Meditation on Iona) (1996) [16:26]
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (1992) [30:13]
Gordan Nikolic (violin); Colin Currie (percussion)
Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic/James MacMillan
rec. April and September, 2010, Netherlands Broadcasting Music Centre

James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
MacMillan Series - Vol. II
O (Advent Antiphon for 21 December) (2008) [8:48]
Tryst (1989) [25:59]
Magnificat (1999) [14:07]
Nunc Dimittis (2001) [7:15]
Netherlands Radio Choir
Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic/James MacMillan
rec. June, 2011, Netherlands Broadcasting Music Centre

James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
MacMillan Series - Vol. III
From Ayrshire [7:40]
Tuireadh [20:20]
Kiss on wood [6:57]
…as others see us… [25:51]
Linus Roth (violin); Julius Berger (cello); Lars Wouters van den Oudeweijer (clarinet)
Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic/James MacMillan
rec. June, 2012, Netherlands Broadcasting Music Centre, Studio 1

Just recently I reviewed a very fine Challenge Classics disc of James MacMillan’s St Luke Passion. However, this wasn’t the first time that the label had issued a MacMillan recording. They have already given us a series of three discs on which the composer conducts the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic of which he was permanent guest conductor from September 2010. This continued until the orchestra was disbanded in August 2013 as a result of cutbacks at the Dutch state broadcasting organisation. I’ve now received copies of these previous discs and the orchestra’s superb playing shows just what a loss Dutch musical life suffered when the orchestra ceased to exist. Quite a number of the pieces have been recorded previously – and in many cases very well - but these recordings have the special authority of the composer, who is an excellent conductor in his own right, on the rostrum.

Volume I is devoted to orchestral works and the principal work is the percussion concerto, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. It was this work and the orchestral piece, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990) which really brought MacMillan to prominence. Unusually for a contemporary score, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel has received at least two previous recordings. There was the 1993 Catalyst release on which the work’s creator, Dame Evelyn Glennie was partnered by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Jukka-Pekka Saraste (09026 61916 2). I rather suspect that’s no longer available. The soloist on this present disc, Colin Currie, has recorded it before, with the Ulster Orchestra and Takuo Yuasa (Naxos 8.554167). I’ve not heard Currie’s previous recording. It’s noticeable that Evelyn Glennie’s recording plays for just 26:08, which is significantly shorter than this composer-conducted account. I think there are two reasons for the timing discrepancies. One is that Macmillan is more expansive in the slow fifth section of the work, ‘Gaude, Gaude’. The other is that at the very end the music fades into silence over a very long time indeed on this new recording whereas the “fade-down” on the Glennie recording is quite short. The long decay of sound on this new recording is tremendously effective. The piece itself is daring and fascinating. The display from the soloist is consistently ear-catching. In addition it’s fascinating to hear many allusions to the plainchant melody that gives the work its title though we have to wait quite some time to hear the tune in full — at around 24:00 in this performance.

The Glennie recording is very fine, both as a performance and sonically, but so too is this new one. Colin Currie’s percussion battery is impressively recorded, both in the explosive passages and also in sections where he is required to play more delicately. His virtuosity is amazing; he’s not at all put in the shade by Glennie. The ‘Gaude’ section (from about 13:27) is magical after which the following Dance section is vibrant. The ending of the piece (from about 27:00) is something of a compositional coup; the soloist plays on tubular bells while the orchestral musicians forsake their instruments and take up either small bells or pieces of metal. The effect is marvellously managed here. One thing that I do regret, though, is that the individual sections of the piece are not separately tracked; they are differentiated on the Glennie recording, which is a great help.

A Deep but Dazzling Darkness is for solo violin, ensemble and tape. I’m not sure if MacMillan has used a pre-recorded tape in any other composition. This is a very discomfiting piece and we learn from Ivan Moody’s notes that part of the inspiration for it came from MacMillan’s discovery that before St. Cecilia was adopted as the patron of musicians the Old Testament prophet Job had occupied that position. The tape is used fairly sparingly; it is heard at the start and then at two or three junctures thereafter. It consists of the sounds of various speaking voices and it would have been interesting to get some idea from the notes as to the words that are being spoken. It seems that the music contains allusions to the Renaissance melody L’homme armé though I failed to discern these allusions as the work unfolded. It’s a very challenging piece to hear – and challenging for the performers, I’m sure. I don’t profess to understand it and I fear that I don’t feel greatly drawn to it either.

Í (A Meditation on Iona) is for strings and percussion. The composer says that he “intended to give an impression of the island of Iona where St. Columba lived, and died in 597. It is a place of stark and desolate beauty, a focus of deep spiritual resonance and historical significance.” The result is a dramatic and atmospheric composition that features very arresting writing for the strings and highly imaginative use of the percussion. As examples of MacMillan’s highly inventive writing I would cite the short, dramatic passage for lower strings and thunder sheet (around 13:20) and also the delicate conclusion that features soft violin harmonics and the deep tolling of a super bowl. This is a highly imaginative piece.

Volume II consists mainly of works for chorus with orchestra though Tryst is a purely orchestral score. Tryst was composed in the year before MacMillan’s big break-through with The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. It’s a most impressive early piece and the urgent, driving, percussion-impelled opening announces that here is a compositional voice of some consequence. Later (at 6:20) comes a slower-moving section based on highly individual chord sequences for the woodwind. Ivan Moody suggests parallels with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments or even with Birtwistle. While not disagreeing, this episode also suggested to me a darker version of the sort of chords one often hears in Messiaen. Whatever the influences, the music is intriguing. Further into the piece (10:20 – 12:30) comes what Moody rightly terms a “calmly beautiful chorale” for strings after which the predominant nature of the piece is highly energetic. It’s an astonishing work, vividly imagined for the orchestra. It’s been recorded before by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (review) and it also appears on the previously-mentioned Naxos disc of Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. I’ve not heard either of those performances but it’s hard to imagine that either would be significantly better than the superbly incisive playing offered here by the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic.

O is an adaptation and expansion of one of MacMillan’s Strathclyde Motets, O Radiant Dawn. The original piece, which dates from 2007, was for unaccompanied choir but here MacMillan has re-worked the music for three-part female choir; I think the original was for SATB. He has also added a discreet but effective string orchestra accompaniment. The most striking difference, however, is the insertion of a new middle section (2:52-5:55) which involves a solo trumpet. It’s an effective adaptation which succeeds on its own terms though I prefer the directness of the original.

MacMillan himself has previously recorded the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (CHAN 9997). That was a 2001 recording with the BBC Singers and then, as now, he used the orchestral version of the scores – there’s also an organ version of each piece. The two pieces are separate compositions though the Nunc Dimittis includes some material from the earlier canticle setting. Both are splendid pieces and both take a typically individual approach to the texts, an approach that’s clearly founded on a very deep understanding of the meaning of the words. The Netherlands Radio Choir sings both canticles extremely well and the English diction is very clear, which is just as well since the texts are not included in the booklet.

For Volume III we return to purely instrumental music with a collection of pieces for chamber orchestra, all but one of which features a soloist. The exception is … as others see us … A version of this, conducted by the composer, appeared on the same 1993 Catalyst CD of Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. There’s a clever conceit behind the work. MacMillan has taken as his inspiration seven portraits that hang in London’s National Portrait Gallery of notable English men and women – though one of the characters was the American, T.S. Eliot. Apart from Eliot the portrait subjects are a diverse mix ranging from King Henry VIII to Lord Byron and the scientist and pacifist, Dorothy Hodgkin. Uniting these six short movements – the poets Byron and Wordsworth are portrayed in the same movement – is a Scottish dance tune which is varied in each movement according to whichever character is being portrayed. I have to admit, however, that I didn’t find it easy to discern MacMillan’s variation technique. The music, however, is consistently interesting and the scoring is notably inventive. Once again the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic offers virtuoso playing, not least in the dashing music that depicts Byron. My own favourite is the T.S. Eliot movement where MacMillan wittily combines music that sounds like a viol consort with a cheeky fox-trot.

Tuireadh is a tough nut to crack. The title is the Gaelic word for ‘lament’ and the work commemorates the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea in which 167 oil workers perished. Originally composed for clarinet and string quartet we hear it in the later version for clarinet and string orchestra. Often the music is unapologetically angry and abrasive though other passages are searingly sad. The work here receives a performance that is vivid, if not graphic and Lars Wouters van den Oudeweijer masters the hugely demanding clarinet part. The writing is challenging for the listener and I have to say that I came to wonder if the piece is not over long. This is arguably a case where less might have meant more.

Kiss on wood is a piece that reflects the part of the Roman Catholic liturgy on Good Friday where the faithful venerate the Cross. The melodic basis for this short work for cello and strings is the plainchant ‘Ecce lignum crucis’ (‘Behold, the wood of the Cross’). The cellist is often taken up into the high, plaintive register of the instrument in a way that recalls Tavener’s The Protecting Veil – though the two pieces are poles apart musically. The present performance is an eloquent one, though what I presume is the breathing of soloist Julius Berger is often audible.

From Ayrshire was written for Nicola Benedetti, its title reflecting the Ayrshire roots of both her and James MacMillan. It’s in two movements. The first is marked Lento, molto rubato and Ivan Moody says that the violin part “manages to suggest the nostalgia of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending in its ethereal rhapsodising.” A comparison between these two composers might not immediately spring to mind but I think Moody is right. The second movement is marked Like a very fast reel and it’s very short indeed, playing for about ninety seconds here. I don’t quite see how the two movements fit together – if, indeed, they’re supposed to – but the brief whirlwind of the second movement is fun while its more substantial companion is very beautiful.

These three discs contain an excellent and wide ranging selection of pieces by James MacMillan. All are expertly performed and the recordings must be counted as definitive since the composer, who is no mean conductor, is in charge. The recorded sound on each of these CDs is excellent and Ivan Moody’s notes are very useful. Through these discs we can appreciate further what a fine and individual composer James MacMillan is. We ought also to regret the demise of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, a sad victim of the financial stringencies of the last few years. On the evidence of these discs Holland has lost an excellent ensemble; we must hope that all the talented musicians who made up the orchestra have all found new employment.

John Quinn

Previous review (Volume 2): Michael Cookson



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