ALBUM TITLE: Macmillan
WORKS: A Scotch Bestiary; Piano Concerto No. 2
PERFORMER: Wayne Marshall (piano, organ); BBC Philharmonic/James MacMillan
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10377
With the extraordinary rise of James MacMillan at the close of the 1980s, many of his fellow Scots were ready to embrace him as a local hero. But it soon became clear that MacMillan’s attitude to his native country was complicated to say the least. Love of its rich culture, in music and poetry, and empathy with its long and terrible sufferings was balanced by awareness of a darker side: religious bigotry, self-destructiveness, pride that destroyed as well as ennobled. Both sides are evident in the wild musical menagerie A Scotch Bestiary, and in the Second Piano Concerto. But while the Concerto has its moments of spellbound celebration, like the strings’ imitation of improvised Gallic psalm-singing (one of the loveliest things in all folk music) in the central slow movement, A Scotch Bestiary is full of a black vitality which always threatens to explode into pure chaos.
Some of MacMillan’s targets – indicated in titles like ‘The red-handed, no-surrender, howler monkey’ and ‘Scottish Patriots’ – are easy to identify. Others, as the work’s subtitle implies (‘Enigmatic variations on a zoological carnival at a Caledoninan exhibition’), are more elusive to outsiders, but even then the acrid caricature remains wickedly entertaining. It’s all brought off with tremendous zest by Wayne Marshall and the BBC Philharmonic under the composer’s direction; but they’re just as much at home in the contemplative, painfully affectionate parts of the Concerto. Stephen Johnson