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James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Cello Sonata No 1 Face, Image [26:51]; Kiss on Wood [9:02]; Cello Sonata No 2 [17:08]; Northern Skies: March, Shifting Sands, Celtic Hymn, Barn Dance, Nocturne, Sabre Dance, Northern Skies [15:16].
Henri Demarquette (cello); Graham Scott (piano).
rec. April 2005, Nordern Farm Centre for the Arts, Maidenhead, Berkshire, England.
DEUX-ELLES DXL 1115 [66:23]

This is a collection of the composer's chamber works for cello and piano; two sonatas, the meditation Kiss on Wood - inspired by the devotional practice of venerating a relic of the cross - and the children's pieces collectively titled Northern Skies.

The works on this disc illustrate the composer's main inspirations: Scottish culture and landscape, and his Catholic faith. In that regard, it is - despite its modest length - quite a representative survey. Macmillan writes well, and is perhaps better known for, his works for orchestral forces such as The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. This disc shows a different side to his compositional talents, and is therefore a contrast to, rather than a summary of, his better known works.

The two Sonatas for cello and piano, written in 1998 and 2000 respectively, mirror each other structurally. The first - which opens the disc - uses another familiar concern of Macmillan's: reflected or perceived image. An example can be found in as As Others See Us. The First Sonata’s sections are subtitled 'Face' and 'Image'. The work opens attractively with a warm open and mellow theme on the cello and a light, tinkling accompaniment on the piano. This which builds to a dance-like theme for that instrument, whilst the cello becomes melancholy and doleful, for a time taking an accompanying role. Dissonance and uncertainty develop as the first movement unfolds. The instruments have seemingly independent paths from each other which cross on occasions. In the second movement a stirring opening fades suddenly, then this theme for the cello makes a brief reappearance before the piano comes to the fore in a slow and delicate section. The cello gradually re-enters in its higher registers, leading to a conclusion in which the music speeds up and becomes increasingly insistent before in the final bars dissolving away abruptly to almost nothing.

The Second Sonata is dissonant and full of uncertainty from the start. It develops unevenly and questioningly, with the balance of power shifting between the instruments as the work unfolds compactly before coming to an abrupt end after a piano solo which erupts suddenly out of nowhere.

'Northern Skies' is a collection of seven pieces suitable for children, inspired by Celtic scenes and traditions. The performers here dedicate it to their own young children. The components are necessarily straightforward but all have simple appeal and a strong rhythm. I particularly like the quizzical 'Shifting Sands' and the rattling 'Sabre Dance'.

The cello sonatas have already been recorded in a well played and keenly priced disc from Naxos. Although the playing here is also good, and the recording is more recent and of high quality, I am not sure whether the inclusion of the children's pieces would tempt the buyer to purchase this more expensive recording in preference.

The short work Kiss on Wood - placed between the two sonatas - is actually my favourite track of the disc. It has reminded me how much I like some of Macmillan's miniatures … such as those on Veni, Veni, Emmanuel - Catalyst LC 0316. It is unashamedly devotional, creating a sense of the infinite in what is only a very short span. This is an achievement in itself; altogether a truly beautiful musical gem. However, lovely though it is, it is unlikely to be the reason why I would go out and buy a duplicate recording of the sonatas if I already owned the Naxos disc.

Listening to this disc might well tempt the hearer to enquire further into Macmillan's work, either recorded or in performance. This applies particularly to his full length concerto for the cello in which he is seen to write ably and with sensitivity.

Julie Williams



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