Written at roughly ten-year intervals from 1988 to 2007, Sir James MacMillan’s three String Quartets (to date) are finely crafted and rewarding works that combine intensity of expression with austere, craggy beauty. Their formidable demands are dispatched with astounding assurance by the Royal String Quartet.
Visions of a November Spring (revised 1991) developed from a new-found period of productivity. To the arch-like first movement (with its expanding and dissolving sonorities from a unison D) the Royal players immerse themselves fully into its juxtaposition of uneasy calm and violence, and dazzle with spot-on intonation and rhythmic acuity in the longer second movement. The music is gripped by a tormented, almost frenzied energy, with startling luminosity and wild, dancing rhythms.
Why is this night different? (1998) draws inspiration from the Jewish festival of Passover and a father’s response to a child’s question about the flight of the children of Israel from Egypt. MacMillan constructs a continuous movement built from a sinuous violin melody and references tunes he wrote as an infant. The Royal musicians’ sure-footed account enables MacMillan’s dramatic instincts to unfold with inevitability, and the elation and despair within its broad expressive range is integrated with admirable control. It’s a remarkably powerful journey.
String Quartet No.3 is also of extraordinary emotional range. Its melodramatic blend of tempestuousness, rapture and otherworldliness, may point to some programmatic content but is purely abstract. That said, in the frantic lyricism of the central movement it’s hard not to imagine some form of outrageous bacchanale in its grotesque waltz-like figures. The physicality of the playing which this elicits is nothing short of miraculous. After this maelstrom MacMillan serves up a mesmerising Finale (marked “Patiently and painfully slow”) that suggests numbed grief (or is it ecstasy?) and the work’s quiet spectral ending disappears beyond both our realm and our hearing. This release enjoys excellent annotation and sound.