The opening interval of a minor ninth is seminal to the whole work. The initial melodic line uses it twice in a phrase which is like holding up a distorting mirror to a chorale melody—and here is the first clue to this work, the mirroring of the mundane by the bizarre, or the bizarre by the mundane … which is which? The work is based on this opening theme, which is heard very clearly in the opening sections and more subtly as the piece progresses, in the manner of a theme and variations. As the music becomes ever more complex (it is highly virtuosic) so the theme becomes subsumed by toccata-like figuration which leaps all over the instrument in imitation of fairground acrobats. MacMillan gives other clues to his characters with markings including brash and clowning, Burlando, energico, and reedy, brassy. We have sleazy glissandi for prostitutes and mock dignity for judges. It encapsulates a whole world between double bars, as Rouault’s work did within a picture frame. But even when the theme is only hinted at, that interval of a minor ninth is there glaring at us like a clown through white makeup. One section (bar 84) begins with three of them thrown down together—G sharp/A in the pedals, A sharp/B in the left hand, and C/D flat in the right hand. In the Andante scherzando section, the longest and most dramatically virtuoso part of the work, MacMillan develops a long-breathed theme for the pedals which grows out of this interval. In its chorale-like progress it seems to represent the longing for Christ’s steadying hand on the tiller of the menagerie of human life, represented here by displaced octaves, scurrying semiquavers, fragmented chordal figures, leering motifs and, finally, a simply ‘wild’ pounding of the keyboards into silence. After a stuttering restart, pianissimo, MacMillan brings back a whole chorale prelude-like section from early in the work and he finishes with the opening theme given in octaves, forte but also cantabile, before two final crashing bars of discord. It is a tour de force of imagination and execution.
from notes by Paul Spicer © 2011