James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Kiss on Wood (1993) [8:28]
After the Tryst (1988) [2:53]
A Different World (1995) [7:59]
Fourteen Little Pictures (1997) [24:53]
Walfrid, on His Arrival at the Gates of Paradise (2008) [3:06]
25th May 1967 (2002) [1:31]
in angustiis…I (2001) [5:05]
in angustiis…II (2001) [9:58]
Gregory Harrington (violin); Simon Mulligan (piano); Caroline Stinson (cello)
rec. 3 and 6 August 2009, Bicoastal Music, Ossining, U.S.A.
ESTILE RECORDS 391651 [63:56]

We learn from Gregory Harrington’s website that he created Estile Records in 2006. This collection of music by James MacMillan is the second release on the label. It is well recorded, though for my personal taste the instruments would not be quite so close. The disc is trendily presented in a cardboard, foldout case, and the booklet contains extensive information about the three young artists – though, as is so often the case nowadays, we don’t learn where or when they were born – and about the composer. The notes on the music, by MacMillan himself, have been taken from the Boosey and Hawkes website. The typeface is discouragingly minuscule.

My previous knowledge of MacMillan’s music was limited to his choral and orchestral works, so I have been particularly pleased to get to know some of his chamber music. The title Kiss on Wood refers to the wood of the cross, and the Good Friday procession of people passing by to kiss it. There is also an association with the wood of the instruments on which the piece is played. The composer’s notes describe the work as “a short, static and serene meditation” on these matters, and this description will do very well, except that the very opening is rather more dramatic than that. The music is slow moving, with long note values that, in the piano part, may be held almost to the point of decay. Silence plays an important part too.

Over a series of arpeggiated chords in the piano, the multi-faceted violin part of After the Tryst might seem too much. But with its tremolandi, glissandi, harmonics and a multitude of other stuff, this sketch for a later orchestral work is an exquisite miniature. A Different World also relates to another MacMillan work, his opera Inès de Castro. The composer writes of the lovers’ “yearning for an imaginary world … far from … political and military intrigues”, though characteristically the work also includes references to plainsong and to a Passion choral, thereby expressing “a deeper yearning”. I find this a more difficult nut to crack, and even after several hearings still don’t quite understand what the composer is driving at, the hammered, repeated clusters at the bottom of the piano keyboard that close the work particularly problematical, though there are many striking and beautiful passages on the way.

Fourteen Little Pieces is written for piano trio. A wide range of expression and emotion is contained here, as well as great variety of instrumental texture. It’s a pity each piece was not separately banded, as they run into one another and I think a listener new to the work would get more out of it, more quickly, if it were immediately clear where one piece ended and the next began. Even now, after three hearings, I’m not always sure. I wouldn’t want to make too much of this as it won’t matter to everybody, but it bothers me if I don’t know where I am in a new work, particularly one as challenging and as potentially rewarding as this one.

After the dark intensity of the piano trio pieces it’s a relief to turn to Walfrid, on His Arrival at the Gates of Paradise, originally for folk band but here played in its piano version. It starts sweetly and gently, but ends with a short, slightly mad folk dance. Buying the disc is an excellent solution for those who would like to understand the title, but suffice to say that as well as a devout Catholic and politically engaged, MacMillan is also an ardent supporter of Celtic Football Club – some might think this the most important attribute of the three – of which Walfrid was the founder. In the following piece, the composer evokes the day in 1967 when Celtic won the European Cup. This important occasion is celebrated in appropriately exuberant fashion, though quite what the majority of Celtic fans would make of it is open to question!

Darkness returns with in angustiis. The title is one attributed to Haydn’s Nelson Mass, and might be translated as “in time of anguish” or “in time of trouble”. The first piece, for piano, was composed in 2001, and is a sombre reflection following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and elsewhere in September of that year. Works with the same title also exist for solo soprano, solo oboe and solo cello, as well as that for solo violin which closes this disc.

The performances are totally committed and will, I feel sure, have brought great satisfaction to the composer. Three of the pieces are marked as first recordings. This is a brave and enterprising disc which is recommended to all those interested in modern music, and more particularly to those yet to encounter James MacMillan’s works for reduced forces.

William Hedley

see also review by Mark Sealey (July 2011 Recording of the Month)

A disc of contrasts, sweet and lilting, austere and challenging, all brilliantly played.