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Easter Triptych


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In consideration of the extraordinary creative talent within James MacMillan, his musical voice has been heard increasingly over the last ten years, and one music publisher and a record company have shown unequivocally how they feel about such music.

James MacMillan: The World's Ransoming; Cello ConcertoThe three works here (on two CDs) form a Triduum – an Easter triptych – as one Catholic composer's passionate yet compassionate contemplation of the events of three crucial days, the last on earth of Jesus Christ. Linked as the pieces are, they have separate musical identity and form: The World's Ransoming, Concerto for cello and orchestra, and Symphony 'Vigil'.

One burning question must be asked of a composer in these days of multifunctional styles and a shortage of quivering emotion: 'what turned you on?'. James MacMillan will tell you, I don't doubt .

Listen and absorb his intensity of musical feeling and there's much less to ask. In the first piece of the triptych, a solo cor anglais interacts with the orchestra in contemplating the swirling emotions of the believer at the commencement of the tragedy on Maundy Thursday. (Click here to listen.) A line or so of Bach's chorale Ach wie nichtig wails in ghostly form from brass (click to listen), the general texture rises and falls in emotive fervour, the journey of the solo cor anglais is influenced by a variety of events increasingly disturbed and disruptive. Gentle swirlings of crotales hush the unease periodically before it all falls away to a knocking on wood, a significant sign to be used again later in the triptych.

The crucial day two, Good Friday and its tumultuous happening, are beqeathed to cello and orchestra. The drama of this is set out with the cello as both mocker and mocked, and much of the instrument's special qualities drawn upon extensively. The first movement, The Mockery, is therefore nightmarish, crudely vicious, a portrait all too clearly drawn for the scene it enacts. (Click here to listen.) Composing this concerto co-incided with the appalling tragedy of the shooting of a class of 16 five-year-olds in Dunblane. Not surprisingly, MacMillan's reaction spilled over into music, to be locked into the second movement as a searing reflection on the sacrifice of innocence, both infants and the Christ Man. (Click to listen to the opening of the 2nd movement.) The transition in the final movement from irony and bravado in the face of pathos, the awful nails pounding through flesh, and the slow release as the solo cello painfully climbs ever higher and softer (click to listen) are an enormous tribute to MacMillan for his acute sensitivity and the radiance of his faith.

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 Copyright © Basil Ramsey, June 6th 1999

'James Macmillan from Glasgow is the most exciting composer to have emerged in the 1990s... (he has) a gift of communicating with electric intensity to a wide audience, rare in new music today.' - Penguin Guide

'It is, in a word, a 'real' Cello Concerto - lyrical, combative, rich in dialogue and scored with a skill that suggests innovative imagination.' - The Independent

'Vigil is a breathtaking piece, potent, haunting and magnetic, and with a profound inner beauty which speaks of music conceived by the soul...his finest work yet.' - Geoffrey Norris, The Telegraph

MacMillan's Triduum is on the BIS label. Further details tomorrow.
UK distribution: Select Music, +44 (0)1737 760020

The artists featured here will perform the Cello Concerto
on 2 August 1999 at the BBC Proms in London.
The complete Triduum will be performed
at the Edinburgh Festival on 22 August 1999.
The première of a new choral work Quickening will take place
at the BBC Prom on 5 September 1999.

The music of James MacMillan is published by Boosey & Hawkes

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