Macmillan: The Berserking; Sowetan Spring; Britannia; Sinfonietta

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COMPOSERS: Macmillan
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: The Berserking; Sowetan Spring; Britannia; Sinfonietta
PERFORMER: Peter Donohoe (piano); Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Markus Stenz, James MacMillan
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 68328 2 DDD
For a composer in his thirties, whose music has evolved as rapidly and unpredictably as James MacMillan’s has over the last ten years, the 1989 piano concerto The Berserking is a relatively old piece. The violent energy of the outer movements, full of Stravinskian rhythms and brutal explosions of soloist and orchestra, encloses a lyrical core tinged with Celtic folksong, and that contrast between an unforgiving toughness and a soft sweetness that verges on sentimentality has remained typical of MacMillan’s subsequent music.

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What are never in doubt, though, are his musical imagination or his sincerity – the origins of a piece like Sowetan Spring, composed to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, are impeccable, and the skill with which he uses fragments of Nkosi Sikelel’ i Afrika to build up first an Andriessen-like hocket, then a brooding central section before all the pent-up energy is released in Rite of Spring-like dislocations, is an impressive achievement. Certainly it is far more convincing than the simplistic formulae of the 1991 Sinfonietta or the anti-imperial collage of Britannia, in which fragments of Elgar, Arne and military marches flit by; however much one warms to the sentiments behind Britannia, the musical results are problematic. Andrew Clements