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James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)
String Quartet No. 1 Visions of a November Spring (1988, rev. 1991) [21:08]
String Quartet No. 2 Why is this night different? (1998) [22:33]
String Quartet No. 3 (2007) [27:17]
Royal String Quartet
rec. 2017, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
HYPERION CDA68196 [71:00]

MacMillan is best known for his orchestral and choral works, but here he proves to be a remarkable composer of quartets, or perhaps I should say, a composer of remarkable quartets. It turns out that he has always been interested in the form: there is an early unnumbered quartet from 1982 titled ‘Etwas zurückhaltend’ and there are also two short quartets written as tributes, which are not included here. Incidentally, how many composers of quartets have an early unnumbered one to their credit? I can think of Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Hindemith, Walton and Britten straight away. I expect MacMillan’s early one will also surface one day.

Anyway, his three numbered quartets come approximately a decade apart. They have in common an extreme variety of mood, so much so that I wonder how the works manage to hold together at all, but they do. The idiom tends to be rather fierce, with some use of extreme ranges and techniques such as sul ponticello, but they will not tax anyone who is comfortable with, say, Bartók’s quartets, which have clearly influenced MacMillan as they have every quartet composer since his time. The material is always gripping and memorable: there is nothing dull about these works. And, though they must be demanding to play, they are real quartet music, in that you could not imagine them scored in any other way.

The first official quartet is titled Visions of a November Spring, a paradoxical title, based on a line by T. S. Eliot, which conveys something of the balance between influences and original expression in the work. It is in two movements, the first very short and the second rather long. The first is basically an invention on one note, though a few others are allowed in and eventually there are explosions. The second features three contrasted ideas which are developed in fantastically varied ways. This may be a comparatively early work, but it is assured and rewarding.

The second quartet is titled Why is this night different? This comes from the Jewish rite of Seder at the beginning of Passover, and is the question asked by the youngest member of the family; the father replies by telling the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. There is a kind of subtext about a questioning child behind this work. I should mention that MacMillan is not himself Jewish but a devout Roman Catholic. It is in one continuous movement but divides naturally into four sections. The first presents a winding theme, on which the second section develops a set of variations. There follows a short but savage scherzo and a final slow section, into which, however, there is a brief intrusion of a deliberately banal passage, as in Bartók’s fifth quartet.

The third quartet has no subtitle: “just the notes and nothing but the notes”, the composer said. It is the most traditional in construction of the three, divided into three movements with the first having a kind of sonata form. The first features a modal theme and a jagged figure, which are both drawn on in a strenuous development which leads up to a frenzied climax before a relatively straightforward recapitulation, not without its own ferocity. The second movement begins with squeaks and rattles, followed by what Paul Conway in the sleevenote calls “grotesque vignettes” which include a waltz, a march and a polka. The finale, marked “patiently and painfully slow”, is based on a wandering theme in the first violin. It has something of the mood of the finale of Mahler’s third symphony. The movement gradually dies away and fades out.

These are all impressive and rewarding works. They are played with superb confidence and panache by the Royal String Quartet, a Polish ensemble but with strong British links. Previous recordings by them of Szymanowski (reviewand Gorecki reviewhave been well received. The recording is very clear but surprisingly close – or perhaps I am just used to sitting farther back in the hall than I feel I am when listening to this disc. Paul Conway’s sleevenotes are exemplary and come also in French and German. The cover picture of four chairs is not among Hyperion’s most inspired. I strongly recommend this disc, and I would remind MacMillan that it is now over ten years since his last quartet so when can we expect the next one?
Stephen Barber
Previous review: Marc Rochester

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