MacMillan: String Quartets Nos. 1-3

Royal String Quartet (Hyperion)

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MacMillan String Quartet No. 1 (Visions of a November Spring); No. 2 (Why is this night different?); No. 3
Royal String Quartet
Hyperion CDA 68196 71:00 mins

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The string quartet has long been a powerfully personal medium for MacMillan, yielding some of his most intimate and affecting music. This fine recording features his three full-length quartets, the excellent Royal Quartet bringing all the insight, colour and precision that these rich works demand.

MacMillan once described his first quartet, Visions of a November Spring (1988, revised 1991), as ‘sheer frenzy, craziness’. Indeed it unleashes a wild energy, but, in keeping with the duality of its enigmatic title, this is balanced by exquisite lyricism. The Royal deliver both raw power and luscious, song-like sweetness, notably in the second movement’s delicate bird-like swoops. MacMillan’s second quartet, Why is This Night Different? (1998), explores the role of the child in the Jewish Seder (the title quotes the question each household’s youngest member traditionally asks to prompt a retelling of the escape of the Israelites); MacMillan’s score wheels between jubilation and melancholy, with shimmering chorale-like passages, fierce dissonance and blackly-comic waltzes. In contrast, String Quartet No. 3 (2007) marks a return to absolute music. An extraordinary piece, technical yet deeply expressive, this finds the Royal Quartet on top form, playing with flair and utter conviction. Paul Conway’s perceptive liner notes highlight how the score explores the delicate line between sound and its absence. Fittingly enough, this recording allows the work’s final whispered tones to leak into some 30 seconds of spellbinding ‘silence’, offering a mesmerising close to this excellent disc.

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Kate Wakeling