JAMES MACMILLAN (b.1959): String Quartet No. 3, Visions of a November Spring, Etwas zurückhaltend, For Sonny.
Catalogue Number: 08Q081
Description: Etwas Zuruckhaltend is one of a handful of very early pieces recently unearthed by the composer and deemed worthy of resurrection, more or less revised. The 1982 work takes the expression marking that forms its title, and a number of undisguised quotations, from Wagner's Ring. The work has an experimental feel - not in the sense of experimental techniques, but in that of a young composer seeking a personal style. The idiom shifts a little uneasily between dense, saturated chromaticism, complex atonal textures, an extended tonality that would develop into MacMillan's mature style, and partially absorbed influences. Although it just pre-dates MacMillan's dramatic emergence into the limelight with The Confession of Isabel Gowdie, and soon after, Veni, Veni Emmanuel, Visions already sounds like a work of MacMillan's early mature style, with its references to traditional Scots Gaelic music, an inventive approach to harmony, intens rhythmic vitality, and an exuberant use of compositional resources. A strange prelude, consisting of odd efflorescences around a single pitch is followed by the main part of the work, alternating stylized rustic dance episodes with expressive, lyrical keening. The much more recent 3rd Quartet is a substantial three-movement work. The first movement combines dense chromaticism with mysterious modally-inflected melodic lines, suggesting a combination of polyphonic chant and archaic folk music. Some extraordinary pitchless 'chatter' in the very highest register punctuates this intense, expressive movement, which is followed by a bizarre scherzo, featuring what sound like satirical take-offs of certain sound effects beloved of the avant garde. The finale is an unbroken arc of intensely expressive, very slow melody with something Wagnerian in its harmonic progressions as it ascends toward inaudibility. For Sonny is a touching memorial for a child, with sorrowful, dissonant harmonies casting a transfiguring glow around a gentle, nursery-rhyme refrain played pizzicato. Edinburgh Quartet.