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CLASSICAL  September 2007

CLASSICAL September 2007

Subject:

Pictures at a Carnival Exhibition of Animals

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 19 Sep 2007 12:24:35 -0700

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text/plain

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James MacMillan
Keyboard and Orchestra

*  A Scotch Bestiary (2003-04)
*  Piano Concerto #2 (1999-2003)

Wayne Marshall, organ & piano
BBC Philharmonic/James MacMillan
Chandos CHAN10377 Total time: 63:46
Summary for the Busy Executive: Terrific.

For those like me who think of him as an enfant terrible, James MacMillan,
hard to believe, is now almost fifty.  Furthermore, he has developed
mightily as a composer.  From an austerely simple style that got him
lumped in with the so-called Holy Minimalists like Paert and Gorecki,
he has moved to an austerely complex one, capable of expressing a wide
range of emotion.  I must admit that some of his works bored me to
somnolence, striking me as too removed from a life truly lived and
observed and too buried beneath conventional pieties, but not the newer
ones.  Indeed, the works on this disc seem to me to stand among the best
scores of their time.

A Scotch Bestiary sports the following subtitle: Enigmatic variations
on a zoological carnival at a Caledonian exhibition.  From this, we see
links to Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, Saint-Sa=EBns's Carnival of the
Animals, and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.  I must admit that
the Elgar link escaped me, unless it's an "unstated theme on a well-known
tune" heard only in variation (my guess: Mussorgsky's "Great Gate of
Kiev").  I could be wrong.  The Saint-Sa=EBns connection is apparent in
the title itself.  This is a musical bestiary, largely satiric in intent.
The work divides into two large movements: "The menagerie, caged," a set
of character-pieces with interludes representing the reader turning pages
in the book, a la Mussorgsky wandering from picture to picture; "The
menagerie, uncaged," a whirligig fantasia.  To a large extent, it's also
a display piece for organ and orchestra, although it lacks the byplay
with the orchestra of most concerti.  Indeed, few organ concerti come
off in this way, perhaps because the organ itself is so much a "little
orchestra" and tends to blend in, especially with the winds.

Still, the piece brims with interest.  I happen to have a soft spot
for animal fables -- La Fontaine's Fables, Kipling's Just So stories,
Gondowicz's Zoology, even Warner Brothers cartoons from the Thirties
through the Fifties.  Most of them turn out to be incisive commentary
on human nature, usually satiric in mode.  MacMillan proves no exception,
nor does Saint-Saens, come to think of it, if we remember the "pianists"
and "wild jackasses" sections of Carnival.  But where Saint-Saens displays
a gentle wit, MacMillan attacks with sharp teeth and lip-smacking relish.
Indeed, it reminds me, in its bite, of Mahler's satiric songs.  MacMillan
hits many, many targets: "Scottish Patriots," "The Reverend Cuckoo and
his Parroting Chorus," and "Jackass Hackass" (which contains a brilliant
toccata for typewriters, piano, and bass), to name only the most obvious
sections.  The interludes themselves, based on the rhythm of Mussorgsky's
opening to Pictures, get their own variations, some of them quite
beautiful.  I particularly liked one with percussion and harp.  I've
listened to Bestiary several times over the last few weeks and each time
come up with different favorite parts.  For that reason, like Mussorgsky's
Pictures, it seems one of those "inexhaustible" works that can occupy
you for years.

The fantasia second movement is a free-for-all.  Themes and even sounds
from the first movement jostle one another, leap out at you from the
dark jungle.  This is almost "nature, red in tooth and claw" -- almost,
but not quite.  Along the way, we also get the horses of the Valkyrie,
Strauss-and-Mahler alpine cows, and a whole mess of birds (and not just
the cute birds, either).  David Nice's liner notes make the point that
most works of this sort -- including Saint-Saens and Mussorgsky -- usually
bind up the variation set in a highly-structured, often fugal, ending.
MacMillan goes the opposite way.  We begin in art and end in the chaos
of real life.

The second piano concerto began (at least its first movement) as a sextet,
and it sounds more like a chamber work than a concerto, even though the
piano plays most of the time and for long stretches by itself.  The first
movement overflows with themes, far more than in the typical classical
concerto: a lickety-split toccata, three tunes by 18th-century Scottish
musician John French, a central meditation for the piano, and an enigmatic
coda.  Almost all the ideas are quick and lively, and MacMillan exploits
them in contrast with the meditation.  The movement proceeds not by
classical argument, but by some spiritual program of dramatic confrontation.
MacMillan begins with what you think high spirits, but the emotive meaning
very quickly changes.  The fast sections become more frenzied and brutal,
the meditation more troubled and fragile.  MacMillan dedicates the
concerto to the great poet Edwin Muir and has admitted the inspiration
of Muir's poem "Scotland 1941," an elegant, powerful tirade against
materialism and false nationalism among the Scots.  MacMillan's movement
thus seems a musical counterpart, with the quick sections whirling without
point, spiraling out of control, and the meditation becoming increasingly
anxious and questioning.

The second movement, "shambards" (from Muir's "mummied housegods in their
musty niches,/Burns and Scott, sham bards of a sham nation), mulls over
two ideas: things that sound like Scottish folk song and the Mad-Scene
Waltz from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, based, of course, on Sir
Walter Scott's Lucy of Lammermoor).  In MacMillan's treatment, the waltz
becomes a bit cheesy and plays off the beauty of the folk tunes.  The
folk tunes themselves degenerate into slightly inebriated sentimentality
before coming back to their wildflower loveliness, but they are overwhelmed
by the resurgence of the Lucia waltz, which becomes more insistent, until
it collapses from its own weight.  The movement ends with dead-march
"drum rolls" from the bass notes of the piano, which lead directly to
the finale, "shamnation." A manic, furious reel explodes with stampings
from the piano and obsession from the solo violin.  More and more
instruments join in and the reel becomes darker and darker.  Occasionally,
the bright light of a country dance breaks through for a few seconds,
but on the whole the reel takes on a martial character, with screams,
drumbeats, and whistling arrows from the orchestra.  As it proceeds, it
winds the listener ever more tightly until, out of nowhere, the Lucia
waltz breaks in for no good reason (Scotland tamed?), inaugurating the
cadenza.  But the reel returns, ending in the solo piano essentially
running off the rails, over a precipice.  The concerto ends abruptly,
in the middle of things, and I found myself mentally gasping for breath.
I can't praise this concerto highly enough.

Nor can I praise Wayne Marshall as he deserves.  In both works, MacMillan
has given him a part that doesn't have the glory a Tchaikovsky concerto
bestows on a soloist, but Marshall pulls off heroic feats time and time
again, more so in the piano concerto than in the Bestiary, but he has
his moments in the latter score as well.  The BBC Philharmonic under the
composer just plays the devil out of these works.  A poor performance
would let the music degenerate into shapeless goo, but these readings
never let their dramatic purpose disappear.  The occasional chaos has a
point. As far as I'm concerned, one of the best of the year.

Steve Schwartz

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