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James MacMillan Raising Sparks Review

Album. Released 2 September 2002.  

BBC Review

Jean Rigby's voice displays an impressive expressive range to portray the contrasting...

Andrew McGregor 2002

It is now over a decade since James MacMillan hit the big time with powerful scores such as Busqueda (1988), The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990) and the popular percussion concerto Veni, veni, Emmanuel (1992). His more recent works have failed to achieve quite the same popular and critical acclaim and in 1999, MacMillan became better known for his publicly-declared opinions on the state of religion in Scotland than for his music.

However, MacMillan is generally a quiet-spoken man, not particularly extrovert in personality, and it is therefore perhaps not surprising to find some gems among his more intimate music, revisited on this disc of chamber works.

His early Piano Sonata (1985) is a striking work, already displaying some of the fingerprints of his recognisable style - the interruption of still, chordal passages by short rhythmic bursts, dance-like episodes and a lyricism that periodically bursts from beneath the music's surface. This serious work is given the required sense of space and gravitas in a fine performance by John York.

The other piano works on this disc are 'occasional' miniatures, with which MacMillan conjures dreamlike sounds from the piano, incorporating elements of his beloved Scottish folk music and revealing a sense of humour that contrasts with the serious business of most of his scores. These are extremely accessible pieces - For Ian (2000) is a film soundtrack hit waiting to happen!

The principal work on the disc is the song-cycle Raising Sparks (1997). MacMillan and poet Michael Symmons Roberts tackle the themes of creation and redemption, and the sincerity of their endeavour is in no doubt. The music is instantly attractive but the message of the poems isn't so immediate - Raising Sparks presents a very personal exploration of these broad themes. Jean Rigby's voice captures the perfect tone for the opening 'dawn of time' passage, and displays an impressive range of expression to portray the contrasting emotions of the piece. The Nash Ensemble gives a committed performance of a wonderfully detailed accompaniment.

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