Two Scenes from the Death of Count Ugolino
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov [Violin Concerto; Stirling Choruses]
Loré Lixenberg (mezzo-soprano)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Susanna Mälkki [Two Scenes from the Death of Count Ugolino]
Melinda Maxwell (oboe), Timothy Lines (clarinet), Stephen Gutman (piano), Céline Saout (harp), Judith Templeman (violin) & Ulrich Heinen (cello)
Violin Concerto recorded on 7 January 2006, and Stirling Choruses on 24 February 2006, in City Halls, Glasgow; Two Scenes and Motus recorded on 24 April 2006 in CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: October 2006
CD No: NMC D115
Duration: 68 minutes
It’s good to have these recordings of Stuart MacRae’s music generally available. MacRae has the ability to take the listener into a fantastical world, one enriched with a musical syntax that rewards both the intellect and the senses. The four pieces here date from between 1999 to 2004.
Inverness-born, in 1976, MacRae completed his Violin Concerto to a commission for the BBC Proms in 2001. It’s an impressive creation. The first movement is chilly and eerie and also ravishing, the solo part athletic and lyrical, owing something, maybe, to Berg’s Violin Concerto, and with orchestral writing both precise and allusive. The violin seems to hover above the orchestra, sometimes flying solo and sometimes perching and associating with the intriguing web of sound that MacRae has conjured.
Written in memory of Xenakis, who died while the Violin Concerto was being composed, the second movement is an elegy that is both eloquent and has sonorous climaxes; a sense of ritual is enacted. The scherzo deals with clockwork mechanisms, the orchestra and the violin (in that order) knitting together. The longest movement is the slow finale, the violin’s expressiveness, outlined earlier in the work, is now fully developed, albeit to an agitated and claustrophobic climax; the close is fragmentary and uncertain.
MacRae’s Violin Concerto is a notable work, one that exists on numerous levels, and receives here a first-class performance, with Christian Tetzlaff the distinguished soloist, and in a recording that is vivid and well-balanced.
Stirling Choruses is from the same performing stable, as it were, this time without Tetzlaff, a work for brass instruments specifically inspired by Stirling Castle – both as the venue for the first performance and animated by the Castle’s place in Scotland’s history and landscape. Stirling Choruses is short (just under 8 minutes), pithy and virtuoso; searing and strident, rich and snaking, a solo trumpet standing out from two defined groups of brass: horns and tuba, and trumpets and trombones. Dedicated to Martyn Brabbins, Ilan Volkov here secures playing of dexterity and fullness to bring this music to life.
The longest single movement here is Motus, near on 18 minutes in this performance. Motus (‘movement’ or ‘procession’) parades each of the six instruments – violin, cello, clarinet, oboe, piano and harp – as soloists and as an ensemble of equality; cadenzas for each and what might be described as ‘overlapping solos’. Motus holds a fascinating balance between individuality and teamwork.
The opening of “Two Scenes from the Death of Count Ugolino” begins with a trumpet solo and reminds, momentarily, and no doubt totally coincidentally, of the opening of Franz Schmidt’s Symphony No.4. Once again MacRae’s dramatic instincts are to the fore, so too his keen ear for colour and timbre. Dante’s “Inferno” is the inspiration, from the tenth circle of Hell, the image of Count Ugolino “with his jaws planted in the back of the head of … Archbishop Roger” (MacRae), and, then, the recounting of how Ugolino and his sons were starved to death by Archbishop Roger.
Loré Lixenberg, greatly experienced in the fields of music-theatre, the ‘musical’, and much contemporary music (Birtwistle, Cage, Maxwell Davies, Sørenson, et al) seems well on top of MacRae’s singable and declamatory setting, and the variegated and suggestive use of instruments is well sustained by BCMG and Susanna Mälkki.
As for the Glasgow tapings, those from Birmingham are superb in terms of recording quality.
All in all, this is a very recommendable release of satisfyingly challenging music, NMC’s booklet commendably well annotated with full notes, biographies, and, as appropriate, texts.
Maybe NMC would now like to consider recording MacRae’s opera, “The Assassin Tree”.