Scottish composer Sir James Loy MacMillan [born 1959] has written three string quartets. They seem to diminish in intensity marginally as we move from No. 1 to 3. I am going to bite the bullet and discuss the First Quartet, titled Visions of a November Spring, from 1988, which is quite confronting at times. The work is in two slightly unbalanced movements, with the first being quite brief (and intense) and the second being considerably longer, and varying in intensity.
The work starts inaudibly, which is often a feature of modern composers who like to confront. I remastered it so that I could hear the music. The first sound heard is a sustained chord with occasional glissandi that doesn’t really say anything musical to me. Now the sustained violins feature abundant glissandi and are stretched tight for a time, generating a good deal of tension. A dissonant flourish dominates the next section which then moves into some gentle playing, before an aggressive violin enters, bringing with it further tension. The flourish reappears, then ends on a faded glissando passage. It’s worth mentioning that this movement increases in volume from inaudible to extremely loud at the finish.
A semi-rhythmic pizzicato sound opens the long movement. I remastered this as well but the sound is still relatively soft. Slowly, a violin line is introduced with a phrase played in several different ways. A loud dissonant flourish gives way to two violins in a shrill, glissando passage that is quite charming. One violin now becomes more prominent in a duel with the second violin. The pizzicato accompaniment resumes and the texture is relatively light; that is, except for the occasional flourish. A new violin section features a lamenting violin, again with a strong use of glissandi.
A recapitulation of the opening section is quite audible this time and it also ends with a strong flourish. Further lamenting, sparring violin sounds are introduced, moving into a fadeout. The next sound heard is nothing, which is the result of a 20-second pause. The music returns with a strong cello presence and more dissonance and oh, so much glissandi.
Now a long section of two violins unfolds, which is quite fetching, even through its dissonances. One violin explores a melodic line, while the second mostly adds discordant interjections. The cello also is strong and the section ends on a flourish while another significant pause introduces some soft glissandi. The music moves to a new level of frenzy and a full minute of frantic playing. A more relaxed passage is short and the contrast between the subtle and the frenzied is quite astounding. Moving towards the conclusion, an intermittent violin is heard over a sustained ensemble sound. It finishes on a relatively mild flourish.
Obviously, this is difficult music. However I have heard many other composers equally as difficult – there are a significant number of exponents, and they differ substantially as well. I will mention the Arditti String Quartet, who make it their focus to investigate the works of practitioners of this very modern compositional approach.
On to availability. The review CD, titled Visions of a November Spring, performed by the Edinburgh Quartet on the Delphian label, also contains the Third Quartet. This disc is only available on MP3 download from Amazon US and UK. However, new copies are still available from Presto Classical here. A different CD, also containing the work is titled Why is this Night Different? by the Emperor Quartet on the BIS label and can be obtained from Amazon US and Presto Classical.
The review CD is on Spotify and there is a live performance of the work on YouTube.
Listenability: Not for the faint-hearted.