Perhaps because of the size and significance of his vocal and orchestral works, James MacMillan’s chamber music output flies somewhat under the radar. As the Royal String Quartet’s new recording of his three numbered string quartets reminds us, though, MacMillan is a formidable composer in in pretty much every genre in which he works.
All three works date from between 1988 and 2007, and each reflects MacMillan’s daunting technical command of the ensemble. Indeed, his string writing is at time staggeringly difficult: think of a cross between the wildest extremes of Bartók and Ligeti with a bit of the sonic character of Xenakis thrown in, and you’ve got some idea of what goes on during the wildest moments.
But it’s not impenetrable stuff. Quite the contrary. Whether it’s through the off-kilter dances of the first quartet, Visions of a November Spring, or the striking juxtapositions of ideas and textures in the second, Why is this night different?, or the keening laments that dot the String Quartet No 3, MacMillan’s language is one that might be capably grasped. That’s not to say it’s easy-listening—it isn’t—but all of his music here is firmly engaging and rewards repeated listening.
That’s especially true of these performances, which don’t cover all of MacMillan’s works for the ensemble: two pieces, the early Etwas zurückhaltend and For Sonny, are absent. But the three numbered quartets all receive performances that, for fervor and notational accuracy, may as well be described as definitive.
The Royals dig into the frenzied gestures of Visions with an energy that that is electrifying, ably alternating between the gentle, microtonal shadings and explosive gestures of the obsessive (and short) introductory movement, and turning in a characterful account of the spastic (and much longer) second one.
And they mine MacMillan’s inventive manipulation of motives in Why is this night different? with stirring, and often touching, expressive assurance.
In the Quartet No 3, the ensemble never loses sight of MacMillan’s beautiful lyrical writing—the opening violin/viola duet is nearly perfectly balanced, with the lower instrument slightly more present and the violin sounding like a kind of ethereal outline of its shadow a couple octaves higher—while also reveling with the composer’s generous exploration of sonic effects (the second movement’s sequence of extended techniques is rendered with marvelous confidence). And the finale, with its relentlessly rising melodic lines, is, expressively, simply devastating.
It all makes for a striking, powerful album on Hyperion. The competition—led by the Edinburgh Quartet’s accounts of Visions and the Quartet No 3—is not slight. But, for sheer intensity and presence, the Royals hold the crown in this repertoire.