WORKS: Why is this night different?; Tuireadh; Visions of a November Spring; Memento
PERFORMER: Emperor String Quartet; Robert Plane (clarinet)
CATALOGUE NO: CD-1269
Composers from Haydn to Carter have made much of the string quartet as a vehicle for structural experiment, dramatising it from within through the dialectic of theme and form. Though James MacMillan’s two string quartets, Visions of a November Spring of 1988 (revised 1991) and Why is this night different? from 1998, carry descriptive titles, the programmatic element sounds less forward than in other of his works. The energy springs instead from the interplay of different voices, from the directness of their ideas and, above all in these pieces of almost identical duration, from the need to keep contrasting fast and slow musics in a state of passage.
This is especially the impression – a powerful one – of the second quartet; ‘archetypes’ of elation and despair, joy and fear as found in the Jewish rite of Seder are invoked by its composer as inspirational. MacMillan’s command of the extended one-movement structure is here confirmed, though for evidence of his intuitive grasp of such utterance, look no further than the clarinet quintet Tuireadh of 1991, with its keening semitonal cries and strain of Gaelic lament. The first of the quartets pulls together a variety of effects from the Lutoslawski school in convincing fashion. Nicholas Williams