Darkness into Light: The Music of James MacMillan – String Quartets

Visions of a November Spring
String Quartet No.3

Ronald van Spaendonck (clarinet)

Royal String Quartet
[Izabella Szalaj-Zimak & Elwira Przybylowska (violins), Marek Czech (viola) & Michal Pepol (cello)]

Reviewed by: Robert Hugill

Reviewed: 15 January, 2005
Venue: St Giles Cripplegate, London

As part of the BBC’s weekend of music by James MacMillan, “Darkness into Light”, the Royal String Quartet gave a concert of music by MacMillan and Sofia Gubaidulina at the Church of St. Giles Cripplegate. The Royal is a young group from Warsaw and has been together for six years and currently members of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists scheme.

MacMillan has said that he loves chamber music, but sees it as a challenge as a composer is at his most exposed when writing it. The programme opened with his first string quartet, Visions of a November Spring. An early work, written in 1988 when the composer was 29, it is an autobiographical piece as it celebrates a new-found fertility in his composition. In two movements, the first opens with a unison D, starting from nothing but undergoing a gradual crescendo during which the note is disturbed by pitch bends and flurries of notes. Despite a number of episodes of intensity and violence, the movement finally evaporates into nothing. The second movement opens with a waltz, a recurring feature, its diaphanous texture beautifully caught by the players. As the movement unrolled, MacMillan explores both this waltz and a high, unison melody that is played in the manner of a Gaelic psalm tune (a group of individuals singing the same tune at the same pitch but at different times). This use of heterophony is something that MacMillan uses repeatedly in the works performed in this concert. The work finished by means of a mysterious, harmonic-ridden coda.

Like much of the music performed here, the quartet seems to concentrate more on expressive devices than closely reasoned arguments; his language is more-often gestural than involving complex multi-layered polyphony. There was a feeling of drama underlying the work; the players strongly entered into this, the audience witnessing a spirited and complex dialogue.

Gubaidulina’s Third String Quartet followed, a composer much admired by MacMillan. In one long movement, the quartet belongs to a group of works by Gubaidulina inspired by verses from T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”. For the work’s first half, the players left their bows behind and used all manner of plucking techniques, mainly on open strings. By this device, the composer includes the action of making the note part of the performance, a celebration of the sheer physicality of the plucking gesture, which contrasted gentleness and violence, at times introducing some surprisingly jazzy rhythms. Then halfway through the movement, the players picked up their bows and the soundworld was transformed. Gubaidulina continued to explore the same ideas, but clothed in different sound and texture. The numinous, intense soundworld, with its sustained notes, finally evaporates into nothing up the first violin’s E string.

MacMillan’s other two works addressed the various forms of the Scottish lament. First, Memento, a short work written in memory of a dead friend, a quiet and intense piece again using techniques from Gaelic psalm singing. Silence plays an important role in Memento and the few moments of classical harmony were made to seem significant.

Tuireadh, written as a memorial for the dead of the Piper Alpha disaster, explores the many gestures used in Scottish laments, inspired by the description of the keening of those attending the memorial service for those who died in the disaster. It is written for clarinet and string quartet. Arising out of almost nothing, just the clarinet barely vocalising a note, the work embodies contradictions and contrasts, unison against heterophony, violence against contemplation. The intensity of the unison passages, disturbed by pitch-bending, was quite striking. Both these works were surprisingly successful attempts to weld folk-gesture and the classical tradition without seeming mere pastiche or just plain embarrassing. The players gave a nearly faultless performance, made all the more impressive by the way they seem to have absorbed the ideas and gestures from a foreign (to them) folk tradition.

All the works in this programme are technically demanding, but this did not cause the musicians a problem and they discovered real expressiveness in the music. Comparing these works to MacMillan’s orchestral pieces played the previous day, I was struck be how much more closely argued and structured these chamber pieces seem to be. MacMillan might feel more exposed when writing such music, but he seems to respond with a strong sense of structure and discipline.

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