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James MacMILLAN (b.1959)
Etwas zurückhaltend (1982, revised 2009) [20.41]
Visions of a November spring (1988, revised 1991) [21.59]
For Sonny (2011) [6.52]
String Quartet No. 3 (2007) [26.19]
Edinburgh Quartet
rec. Broughton St Mary’s Parish Church, Edinburgh, 26-27 July 2013
DELPHIAN DCD34088 [75.56]

This disc contains all the major music which James MacMillan has written for string quartet with the exception of the Second Quartet, which we are promised — together with a number of shorter pieces and the string quintets — on a forthcoming release from the same players.
The Third Quartet included here in its world première recording is the first to which the composer has actually ascribed a number. Visions of a November spring can, we are told, be regarded as the First and the even earlier student work Etwas zurückhaltend can be regarded as a sort of ‘No 0’.
Etwas zurückhaltend takes its title from the tempo direction in the closing pages of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and, the composer informs us, reflects his interest in the music of that composer. Not that the opening displays this, with its static textures enlivened by brief flashes of more rapid movement in a manner that recalls John Casken, with whom MacMillan was studying at the time. Suddenly at 4.35 we hear the ‘Fate’ motif from the Ring, which Shostakovich also quotes in his last symphony, and this is followed in due course by hints of Loge’s fire music and the Redemption theme from the closing bars of the work. Etwas zurückhaltend does not altogether avoid the usual problems with pieces that utilise collage techniques, in that the quotations draw attention to themselves in a manner that detracts from the original material that surround them. Even so, there is enough going on to keep the whole together, and the quartet is interesting in that it shows MacMillan experimenting with techniques that he would not subsequently pursue to the same extent, although he has continued to use quotations in a few later works. One might suspect a programme – all three quotations refer to the downfall of Valhalla – but we are given no clue as to what this might be.
The title of Visions of a November spring is explained by the composer as a depiction of “a particularly prolific time for me” and an initial unison D dominates the first movement while the second — over four times longer — is unified by a dance theme which acts as a sort of rondo with inserted episodes. This dance theme is given in skeletal form, in a manner which reminds me of the central movement of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Its immediately recognisable profile helps the listener to keep track of the development of the music.
For Sonny was written in memory of a friend’s grandchild who died shortly after birth. It is a straightforward piece, structured over a repeated pizzicato phrase from the first violin, and although short it is a moving tribute. It also exists in a version for string orchestra premièred in 2014, and has the same sort of sense of still contemplation that one finds in works such as Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten.
The Third Quartet is a tougher piece than anything else on this disc, an extensive work with the final movement bearing the indication “Patiently and painfully slow”. The contrapuntal writing for the players is loaded with emotional weight which from 7.32 in the first movement builds up a real head of steam in an incredibly high-lying passage which stretches the instruments to their limits. Again, one senses the presence of an undisclosed programme; or it may simply be that MacMillan’s dramatic instincts are always in evidence throughout. The second movement again is distinguished by skeletal march and dance rhythms, like some phantasmagorical nightmare of a scherzo. The finale by contrast is consolatory, with a sense of lamentation.
The performances by the Edinburgh Quartet — who gave the première of Etwas zurückhaltend in 2010 — seem in so far as I can judge to be impeccably tuned and delivered. A review from this site of their earlier 2010 CD of Mátyás Seiber quartets is quoted in the booklet, observing that the quartet “marry technical address to expressive insights” (Jonathan Woolf"). The same remarks legitimately apply here.
The booklet notes by John Fallas give plentiful detail about the music, although some of his writing might be regarded as rather technical for the layman. Even so, the other comment which demands to be mentioned is MacMillan’s evident feeling for the medium of the string quartet. Even when the music is at its most searing, there is always a sense of thematic development which draws the listener onwards. One looks forward with anticipation to the second volume in this series.
Paul Corfield Godfrey