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James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)
Fourteen Little Pictures (1997) [23:18]
Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Trio in E flat, D929 (1827) [50:21]
Gould Piano Trio (Benjamin Frith (piano); Lucy Gould (violin); Alice Neary (cello))
rec. live, Wigmore Hall, London, 17 July 2008. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

Last year saw the premiere of MacMillan’s St John Passion at the Barbican, an awe-inspiring event that found the composer working on a large canvas. Here is the other side of the MacMillan coin – an intimate chamber work. Fourteen Little Miniatures is a set of inter-related short pieces commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of the collaboration of Peter Frankl, György Pauk and Ralph Kirshbaum.
MacMillan’s piece encompasses a wide variety of textures and makes play with the relative importance of each instrument. In some the cello will dominate, in others the violin, in others the honours may be more equally distributed.  There is another recording - on an all-MacMillan disc issued on Black Box - but that might prove rather difficult to locate. The sheer presence of the recording at the Wigmore Hall is laudable, giving grit to the more outgoing, modernist passages. The eighth variation, for strings alone, presents some of those characteristic MacMillan ‘keening’ gestures that here add almost a sense of pleading to the music. They feature prominently in the penultimate variation, also. The very next variation, the ninth, presents a virtuoso side of the piano part - excellently judged by Benjamin Frith. There is an extended silence after the final notes have been sounded – as befits a performance such as this. The title may be misleading, for these 14 ‘little’ pictures contain a wealth of depth and add up to significantly more than the sum of their parts.
The Schubert - D929, sometimes known as Op. 100 - emerges as bright as a button, heard immediately after the MacMillan. The performance is fluent, the tempo for the initial Allegro being perfectly chosen. There is also a youthful freshness here. Perhaps the freshness I not ideally coupled with depth of interpretation, as on occasion in the first movement the momentum stumbles. Schubert is thinking on a large canvas here (the piece lasts over 50 minutes, after all) and the maturity to project the longer-range processes should be a given here. The Beaux Arts Trio demonstrates this perfectly on the Philips twofer, 438 700-2. Despite this, there are many, many moments of the utmost beauty and the three players respond superbly to each other.
There is speculation that the Andante con moto’s theme is based on a Swedish folk melody. It would presumably have come to Schubert via the tenor Isaac Berg, a Dane who was visiting Vienna at the time of the work’s composition. This movement includes a passage - just after the six-minute mark - of the most convivial conversation between violin and cello. The Scherzo is deliciously pointed, while the long finale (16:56) obviously brings out the best in the players. Here joy seems all and it is only when we look further beneath the surface that we begin to realise the miracle of Schubert’s invention.
A worthwhile release, and a stimulating coupling.
Colin Clarke


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