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Stuart MACRAE (b. 1976)
Violin Concerto (2001)a [26:16]
Two Scenes from the Death of Count Ugolino (2004)b [16:14]
Motus (2003)c [17:52]
Stirling Choruses (1999)d [8:00]
Loré Lixenberg (mezzo)b; Christian Tetzlaff (violin)a
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkovad
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Susanna Mälkkibc
rec. CBSO Centre, Birmingham, April 2005 (Two Scenes, Motus); City Halls, Glasgow, January 2006 (Violin Concerto); February 2006 (Stirling Choruses)
NMC D115 [68:22]

Although barely thirty this year (2006), Stuart McRae already has a considerable output to his credit. This is the first full disc devoted to his music.
The earliest work here Stirling Choruses was written for the brass section of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In a short introductory note, the composer mentions that the piece “borrows its modus operandi” from Elliott Carter’s Third String Quartet, in that there are two instrumental groups (horns and tuba on one side, and trumpets and trombones on the other) as well as a solo trumpet, each with their own separate types of material constantly interwoven and overlapping in a colourful kaleidoscopic way. Though inspired by Stirling Castle, the music is neither programmatic not descriptive, but rather conveys the impression made by the imposing castle and its surroundings. This powerfully impressive piece is probably the most straightforward one in this selection, in spite of its formal and technical complexity, which says much for McRae’s assured mastery.
The Proms first performance of the Violin Concerto by Tasmin Little was well received, and this substantial work has already been taken up by Christian Tetzlaff who performed it in Edinburgh in 2002 and who has now recorded it. Though far from easy from a purely technical point of view, the music is fairly traditional by contemporary standards. The structure of the concerto, however, differs from the traditional lay-out, in that it is in four movements of unequal length, the main weight of the whole piece and its logical outcome being the long final movement. The first movement opens tentatively, the violin stubbornly repeating a few notes before making several attempts at lyrical outpourings. Some time later, roles are reversed: repeated notes played by the orchestral strings and interjections from the soloist who again tries - and almost succeeds in - singing long lyrical lines. A sort of dialogue ensues, but orchestra and violin never really meet; and the global impression of the first movement is one of instability and ambiguity, the more so when the music is brought to an abrupt end.

The mostly dark-hued and elegiac second movement, written in memory of Xenakis who died during the composition of the concerto, is full of long, eloquent lines for the soloist, that nevertheless fail to achieve the lyrical tone that they obviously aim at, by sliding between and around the intended notes, again leaving a strong impression of unease. The music builds up to a massively scored, chordal climax leading into a brief cadenza-like passage, after which the music dissolves into thin air.

The third movement is a short, ghost-like Scherzo, mostly for orchestra, in which the violin darts some tiny incisive fragments in all directions, almost aimlessly so. In the long slow final movement, the soloist is – at long last – allowed to be its own lyrical self and to sing in long lyrical paragraphs, accompanied at first by distant drum-rolls, later by discreet orchestral touches: harp, a few woodwind, some light percussion. A more animated section follows in which the orchestral textures thicken, punctuated by massive chords, a variant of the chords heard in the preceding movement. After that, the music becomes calmer and elegiac again for a last, appeased gesture of farewell. McRae’s Violin Concerto might at first seem uncertain as to the direction its music should take; but further hearings reveal the remarkable inner logic, and one realises that what may at first seem rather ramshackle is in fact strongly goal-oriented and thoroughly logical.
Scored for violin, cello, clarinet, oboe, harp and piano, Motus is a concerto for small ensemble, in that each instrument also has some soloistic passage of its own, in which it can develop its own character and virtuosity. The composer describes this piece as a procession, in which – I would add – each instrument briefly delivers its offering. This short piece is a real tour de force, taxing and demanding on the players’ part; but successful in purely musical terms.
The most recent work is also quite impressive. Two Scenes from the Death of Count Ugolino sets words from Dante’s Inferno, in which the poet encounters Count Ugolino with his jaws planted in the back of Archbishop Roger, who was responsible for his death and that of his sons. The first scene is mostly narrative and recounts that gruesome vision. In the second scene Ugolino relates the death of his sons. The music for the second scene, roughly cast as a varied rondo, moves at greater speed emphasising the drama suggested by Dante’s words. Although far from easy, the music’s almost endless inventiveness and imagination not only brings out the tragic events in most vivid terms, but also radiates some deeply felt humanity, and thus achieves the composer’s intention of bridging “the gap between our horror at the awful depravity and the deep sympathy we must feel if we are to help those who suffer because of it”.
For all its formal and technical complexity, McRae’s music retains a remarkable expressive strength that never fails to communicate directly. Though clearly of its time and place, it nevertheless remains firmly rooted in tradition. In this respect, I might be tempted to liken it to the music of Mark-Anthony Turnage. Judging from these pieces McRae is now no longer just a promising young composer; here is a musician who has things to say and who knows how to say them best. One of the most striking characteristics is that the music unfolds logically and is clearly as to its destination. “If there is one thing that unites these pieces... it is that they all feel like journeys of a sort”. I cannot but fully agree with these words by the composer. I now know that he is a composer whose progress I will watch with interest.
Hubert Culot



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