Here we have the three full-blown string quartets thus far composed by Sir James MacMillan. He seems to produce them at the rate of one every 10 years, the first, titled ‘Visions of a November Spring’, dating from 1988, the second, titled ‘Why is this night different?’, from 1998 (the same year, coincidentally, that the Royal String Quartet was formed), and the third from 2007. Over these three works and the two decades they span, MacMillan has explored and experimented with various techniques in a way which might come as a surprise to any of those who know him primarily through the music he has written celebrating his own Catholic faith. Whether or not it is the natural musical accents of this Polish string quartet, but they bring to all three of these works something which does not seem a million miles from the character of much Polish music of recent history.
With ‘Visions of a November Spring’ MacMillan explores the potential of a single note as it is pushed, twisted and turned across the instruments. It begins with that one, sustained note, softly and unobtrusively played across the Quartet, gradually building in volume and intensity and moving gradually away from the pitch centre to create, what it might not be too fanciful to suggest given MacMillan’s Scottish roots, the tuning of a bagpipe chanter. As the intensity increases, so the music becomes more forceful and agitated, only reluctantly moving away from the single pitch—now serving as a bagpipe drone—until, with a flourish, the instruments move off in contrary directions. The alternation of unison playing and often quite opulent harmonies gives the work’s first movement a tense and often anguished feel. The second (and final) movement feels stark in comparison, disjointed pizzicatos and isolated arco melodic motifs again interspersed by sustained pitches twisted and turned by various instrumental techniques. However, there is again more than a few hints of Scots music in the turned phrases and rhythmic figures. The Royal String Quartet deliver this music with a full-on level of intensity, culminating in a suitably manic and explosive ending. If there is a fault with their interpretation of this score, it is that the moments of repose just feel too anticipatory to create any real sense of contrast.
Cast in a single movement, ‘Why is this night different?’ also opens softly, but here with a plaintive solo violin. The title is taken from a Jewish rite in which the flight of the Children of Israel from Egypt is recounted. Through vivid instrumental effects and music which has an indefinably Jewish character, MacMillan paints a very vivid picture indeed. Again, the Royal String Quartet takes no prisoners in its forthright and unfettered approach to the drama of the score, and there are some particularly effective moments where they evoke deep nostalgia and sorrow in the context of what is, at root, celebratory music. Apparently many of the musical themes MacMillan incorporated into the work were written when he was a child, although you would be hard-pressed to guess which ones they are without the aid of Paul Conway’s closely detailed booklet notes.
Without descriptive title, the Third String Quartet relies on music alone to tell its story—there are links with MacMillan’s Third Symphony in that both are concerned with silence. In the case of the Quartet, that silence is represented by long intervals between many of the ideas. Compared with the first of the quartets, the musical language here is more conventional and less experimental, but loses none of the intensity or power. An almost oriental feel pervades the first main theme, and perhaps of all three works, this is the one which suits the particular playing style of the Royal String Quartet best, not least in its huge dynamic and pitch range. This is a compelling and immensely detailed performance which is very well captured by this excellent recording.