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Wednesday, December 16, 2020

James MacMillan - String Quartets (Emperor Quartet)


Composer: James MacMillan
  1. Why is this night different? (String Quartet No. 2)
  2. Tuireadh, for clarinet and string quartet
  3. Visions of a November Spring: I. crotchet = 60
  4. Visions of a November Spring: II. quaver = ca.90
  5. Memento, for string quartet

Emperor Quartet
Martin Burgess, violin
Clare Hayes, violin
Fiona Bonds, viola
William Schofield, cello
Robert Plane, clarinet (2)

Date: 2002




The title of James MacMillan's String Quartet No. 2, "Why is this night different", comes from the Seder, wherein the tale is retold of the Israelites' flight from Egypt. MacMillan employs a highly pictorial musical language as the instruments behave more like characters than quartet members, particularly evident in the opening, where the first violin assumes the role of the singing storyteller. Tuireadh for clarinet and string quartet was composed as a memorial for the victims of the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster. MacMillan's tense and often gut-wrenching music plainly communicates feelings of grief and anguish through the clarinet's simulated shrieks (powerfully rendered by Robert Plane) and the strings' weeping and wailing.

The 1988 String Quartet No. 1 "Visions of a November Spring" is the most austere work of this collection. It begins with unsettling, Corigliano-like "warped" string effects and then proceeds on a fascinating journey through agonized paroxysms and nervous Lutoslawski-style gesticulations before finally arriving at its shadowy close, where the strings create chillingly wraith-like sounds. The disc ends on a decidedly calmer note, with the brief, hymn-like Memento, for which the composer drew inspiration from the sound of Gaelic psalm-singing. All four works receive stunningly assured performances by the Emperor String Quartet, while BIS's recording achieves maximum clarity and dynamic impact. A must for MacMillan fans. [8/17/2002]

-- Victor Carr Jr, ClassicsToday


James MacMillan (born 16 July 1959) is a Scottish classical composer and conductor. He studied composition at the University of Edinburgh with Rita McAllister and Kenneth Leighton, and at Durham University with John Casken. MacMillan came to the attention of the classical establishment with the BBC Scottish SO's premiere of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the Proms in 1990. Further successes have included his second opera The Sacrifice and the St John Passion. MacMillan's music is infused with the spiritual and the political. His Roman Catholic faith has inspired many of his sacred works.


Formed in London in 1992, the Emperor Quartet achieved early success in competitions, most notably in 1995 when it became the first British group to win the prestigious Evian International String Quartet Competition. The Quartet has given concerts throughout the British Isles and continental Europe, and has toured in North/South America and in West Africa. The emsemble's wide-ranging repertoire includes works by Haydn, Beethoven, Xenakis, Birtwistle, Ligeti, as well as contemporary composers such as James MacMillan. The Emperor Quartet teaches string quartet playing at the City Lit College in London.


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