Macmillan: Symphony No. 2; Cumnock Fair; Sinfonietta

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Macmillan
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Symphony No. 2; Cumnock Fair; Sinfonietta
PERFORMER: Scottish CO/James MacMillan
CATALOGUE NO: CD-1119
Memory often deceives, yet holds true in the case of MacMillan’s Sinfonietta. The 18 minutes of made-to-move music one recalls from the 1991 premiere are faithfully reproduced in this recording, though the BIS engineers and Scottish Chamber Orchestra under the composer’s sure guidance serve the piece well. Was a programme from an artist usually keen to equip his pieces with stories unfortunately lost in the post? Too often the cut of its material sounds extreme, a rare case of MacMillan’s canny grasp of form genuinely needing the bolster of external suggestion.

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By contrast, the Second Symphony, completed in 1999 though based on a piano sonata older than the Sinfonietta, sounds adroitly focused. The unusual internal balance of parts, with a broad-backed second movement taking the strain, feels organically right. However, it’s the folk-dance medley Cumnock Fair, written the same year, that best unites both sense and sound in a whirl of strathspeys, reels and jigs served up hot for piano and strings from an original sextet version. MacMillan’s purely musical gift for transition between styles in a manner redolent of Shostakovich is a source of delight, as is the historical reference, via quotes of 18th-century music, to that most irrepressible of Scotsmen, James Boswell. Nicholas Williams