(b. 1959)
A Different World
Kiss on Wood, for violin (or cello) and piano (1993) [8:28]
After the Tryst, for violin and piano (1998) [2:52]
A Different World, for violin and piano (1990s) [7:58]
Fourteen Little Pictures, for piano trio - movements I - IX (1997) [13:05]
Fourteen Little Pictures, for piano trio - movements X - XIV (1997) [11:48]
Walfrid, on His Arrival at the Gates of Paradise, for piano [3:06]
25th May 1967, for piano [1:31]
In angustiis… I, for piano [5:05]
Gregory Harrington (violin); Simon Mulligan (piano); Caroline Stinson (cello)
rec. 3, 6 August 2009. Ossining, New York DDD
ESTILE RECORDS 391651 [63:56]

Gregory Harrington is the violinist on this excellent and highly recommendable CD of small-scale works by James MacMillan. He characterises the composer's music in his introductory text as beautiful and sublime, eliciting emotions that reach the bottom of your inner being and touch the senses in a way that transforms the soul.

Significantly, Harrington, pianist Simon Mulligan and cellist Caroline Stinson don't then set out to prove how true this might be. They simply play MacMillan's translucent and yet penetrating music in a way that allows you to hear every nuance, every phrase and every subtlety of texture. They are consciously quiet ambassadors, not orators. Their playing is close, intimate and recorded in such as way that you can almost hear the horse-hair fray on the bow, the fingers slide on the keys. Yet it's neither intrusive nor overblown playing. Just very bare and honest.

The result is that you come away with a conviction that the 'beauty' and 'sublimeness' which you remember from the last time you listened to MacMillan - perhaps to his better known, larger, choral works - were there; No, you were not mistaken. The substance, the gentleness and nuance of his harmonies, hints at some timbres not usually associated with these instruments, and his occupancy of a space between tonality and atonality are all successful and solid.

The pieces are relatively short. Only each of the two parts into which the lovely Fourteen Little Pictures is divided lasts more than ten minutes… After the Tryst; Walfrid, on His Arrival at the Gates of Paradise; 25th May 1967; In angustiis… I last five or less. But they are not miniatures. They encapsulate much. There is an intensity, a sense of power, of substance and purpose that these three players make almost palpable.

Kiss on Wood, has strong devotional connections … the cross at the crucifixion. While A Different World was written when MacMillan was working on his opera, Inès de Castro. It seems to have the same sense of longing (for change, peace, fulfilment) that characterises much of this mostly slow and reflective music.

After the Tryst picks up on MacMillan's earlier ballad setting; again, there's extreme compactness and concentration. Again, the thoughtfulness and insight which MacMillan brings to all of this music are never actually stated, never laboured by the players. But they are as clear and obvious as if the composer were talking you through each of his intentions, the degrees to which he had succeeded, and how the ideas had emerged - and been very successfully realised.

Similarly, the Fourteen Little Pictures for all that they're individual pieces are 'stitched together' (MacMillan's phrase) as a whole. They are distilled, understated, written in such a way that each note and chord carries a huge weight - to much purpose. For many listeners their beauty and concentration will be the highpoint of this gem of a collection. As with other pieces on this CD references, resonances, recapitulations, restatements and other common threads are vital. But these are not the same as repetitions or variations. Rather, an appeal to commonalities.

Walfrid was written for a sporting occasion in Glasgow with special local and probably (Scottish) national significance. It exemplifies the breadth and reach of MacMillan's musical and cultural vision. MacMillan was eight on 25th May 1967; the piece of that name celebrates another sportsperson, also the composer's dentist! Although the composer describes 25th May 1967 as 'a brief flourish of boyish delight', it too has significance, power and pertinence. Why not!

In angustiis was the original title of Haydn's Mass in Time of War. MacMillan's piece was written after September 11 2001 in a spirit of melancholy; indeed, it includes a variation on L'homme armé as befits times of conflict.

The two impressions with which you'll come away after even a single sitting with this CD are of the music's immense beauty and powerful economy. And the extent to which the three players honour and convey those and MacMillan's other gifts.

Technically, their playing is superb. It never stands in the way of a low key yet vital empathy they have with the idiom, the Scottish idiom too, and the ranges of emotion from the wry and unselfconsciously lighthearted to the extremely poignant and profound which MacMillan has written in this collection. It's a collection, by the way, in which the order of whose works provides a nice sense of contrast. Yet the sequence continually reinforces MacMillan's restrained melancholy.

The acoustic and recording could not be better; and there is just the right amount of material and background on pieces and players - and the composer - in the (rather small-font-sized) booklet that comes with a CD that contains recordings otherwise unavailable on CD. Don't hesitate. If you're already a MacMillan collector, you'll want this one. If you want to see whether you might become one, let A Different World convince you.

Mark Sealey

A compelling and wonderfully-executed recital of James MacMillan's smaller-scale music for piano, violin and cello in a variety of combinations that are not to be ignored. Buy this CD!