Macmillan: Raising Sparks; Piano Sonata; For Ian; Birthday Present; Barncleupédie

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COMPOSERS: Macmillan
LABELS: Black Box
WORKS: Raising Sparks; Piano Sonata; For Ian; Birthday Present; Barncleupédie
PERFORMER: John York (piano), Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano); Nash Ensemble/Martyn Brabbins
Creation and redemption are the themes of James MacMillan’s song cycle Raising Sparks, though much of the imagery comes from Judaism rather than MacMillan’s Roman Catholicism – as in the nearly contemporary string quartet Why is this night different?, inspired by Jewish rites of Pesach (Passover). Like the quartet there are edgy, even threatening elements as well as fleeting visions of transcendence (the mysterious sparks of the title). Human darkness and suffering are confronted, and neither words nor music offer glib solutions. But it’s the kind of music that makes one want to go back and probe further. The musicians of the Nash Ensemble play it with intensity and authority, and if Jean Rigby’s singing stops a degree or two short of being searing, it certainly holds the attention. In John York’s hands, the bleak, steely Piano Sonata emerges powerfully and cogently – hard to believe that this was MacMillan’s first effort at large-scale composition. The two tiny pieces at the end reveal the humorist in the composer: making a dark joke out of ‘Happy Birthday to you’ in Birthday Present, and achieving a surprisingly effective shotgun wedding of ‘Will ye no come back again?’ and Satie in Barncleupédie. Stephen Johnson