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James MACMILLAN (born 1959)
Cumnock Fair
Symphony no. 2

Scottish Chamber Orchestra/James MacMillan
Rec February 2000, City Hall, Glasgow
BIS CD1119 [55.52]
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James MacMillan is now established as one of the leading composers of our time, a position which this excellent CD does much to confirm. His output is impressive in both its range and its quality and he has worked closely with the country's leading musicians, orchestras and opera companies, particularly in his native Scotland.

Born in Ayrshire in 1959, MacMillan studied at Edinburgh and Durham universities and first came to public attention in the late 1980s, when he also developed a strong creative relationship with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, with whom he became Affiliate Composer in 1990.

Although this recording is not new, the Sinfonietta remains fresh and direct. It was written for the London Sinfonietta, but the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play it with a commitment which suggests they have known the music for years. If that may not be so, they do at least know the composer well, since they have shared a close musical relationship for some time. It shows. The performance is exciting and makes the most of the wide-ranging moods contained within the twenty-minute time-scale. The BIS recording, powerful yet natural, also serves the music well.

Cumnock Fair is an attractive folk-based composition which shows that musical nationalism is alive and well. MacMillan lived in the small town of Cumnock as a boy, so there is an element of nostalgia here too. The mood is generally lively, though at the heart of the piece lies an introspective interlude which shows another aspect of the composer's technique and personality. Here and elsewhere Ronald Weitzman's sensitive insert note allows us to gain insight into the procedures and priorities involved in creating the music.

The recent Second Symphony (1999) is not much larger than the Sinfonietta. It has three movements, the outer of which are brief in the manner of prelude and postlude, and contain material which is germane to the whole. The scoring is lighter and more sophisticated than in the Sinfonietta, while the structure is complex and varied, never settling into the routine of a single dimension or tempo. But in every way the music abounds in subtleties, which the excellent recorded sound allows their full rein. In fact the music is not entirely new. Like so many composers before him, MacMillan is engaging in parody, the technique of reworking existing music into a new identity. In this case the source is a piano sonata which predates all the music contained in this collection, though the new context gives it both a new manner and a new conviction.

Terry Barfoot

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