The MacMillan discography continues to grow,
with BIS and Chandos slugging it out to put his big orchestral
compositions on record. This Chandos series has the benefit of
the composer’s not inconsiderable skills as a conductor in its
favour, and this attractively programmed disc will almost certainly
win many friends.
In actual fact, most of the music here comes
from quite early on in Macmillan’s career. The most substantial
item is his Piano Concerto from 1989, so pre-dating the work that
catapulted him to fame, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie.
The rather quirky title was originally inspired by the Viking
‘Berserkers’, warriors who plunged themselves headlong into battle,
often suicidally. MacMillan saw in this a bizarre correlation
with Scottish sport and politics. Attending a Celtic football
match, the composer became aware that his team ‘turned in a characteristically
passionate, frenzied, but ultimately futile display’, and that
this summed up the ‘Scots’ seeming facility for shooting themselves
in the foot in political and, for that matter, sporting endeavours’.
So what is the musical illustration of this? Well, one can follow
the gradual build up, where the orchestral players resort to clicking
the keys and valves of wind and brass, tapping and slapping the
string instruments in a rhythmic, carefully controlled crescendo
to the first big outburst. The piano’s role in this first movement
tends to be textural, with cascading figurations and rippling
arpeggios that reminded me of the gamelan sounds in the Tippett
Piano Concerto. It has an energy that we now hear as typical of
its composer, helped by responsive and alert playing from the
excellent BBC orchestra. The slow section brings the lyrical side
of the piano to the fore and we hear almost improvisatory musings
on Celtic folk melodies, again typical MacMillan. The finale is
characterised by a potent mixture of extreme violence and, ultimately,
childlike simplicity. Roscoe’s playing has a real muscularity
to it, but does not completely eclipse memories of his friend
and regular duet partner, Peter Donohoe, who made the premiere
recording for RCA in 1995.
That disc also included another item on this
new Chandos release, Britannia, a wild and wacky collage
that pays homage to Charles Ives. Here the political dimension
is rather rammed home, with crude references to God Save the
Queen (particularly the line Send Her Victorious),
Knees Up Mother Brown and a yobbish, strutting version
of the main march theme from Elgar’s Cockaigne. All this
is ‘glued’ together by a string threnody straight out of Vaughan
Williams, and the whole thing has a subversive black humour that
makes it fun to experience but probably not to return to all that
Into the Ferment, here receiving its first
recording, was written for a school ensemble and similarly mixes
riotous high jinxes with elements of folk song and Burnsian poetry.
As Stephen Johnson’s excellent note tells us, the opening storm
music bears more than a passing resemblance to Arnold’s Tam
O’Shanter, but the whole piece has a raw but vital eclecticism
that is infectious and hugely enjoyable.
Recording quality is well up to house standards,
and the orchestra is on excellent form. Whilst not erasing memories
of the earlier disc, with its new item this Chandos offering will
make a strong claim on those collectors who enjoy exploring the
contemporary British music scene.