MACMILLAN String Quartets (Royal Quartet)
The cover of this disc of string quartets by James MacMillan is a simple illustration of a dense, web-like tangle of lines in front of four empty chairs. It’s an appropriate metaphor for the music contained inside, where complex polyphonic textures are often juxtaposed with pregnant pauses and sudden silences.
A solitary, sustained D in the viola, heard at the beginning of MacMillan’s early two-movement String Quartet No 1, Visions of a November Spring, emerges from the shadow of silence. Inaudible at first, it is taken up in turn by the other string instruments in ever more aggressive and confrontational exchanges. Set out on a much larger scale, the second movement’s main building blocks are formed out of three distinct ideas. Presented one after the other in the opening section, they are knotted together in a densely constructed development section. As the music hurtles towards a final, unhinged dancelike flourish, MacMillan’s stroke of genius here is to suddenly recall the end of the opening movement, and the realisation that what has been heard all along is a more elaborate exposition of it.
Composed in 1998, the Second Quartet, subtitled Why is this night different? reflects a shift towards a style that is more expressive and direct. A tense focus is maintained throughout, partly achieved through the quartet’s extended single-movement design, but also inspired by the work’s programmatic content, which takes the flight of the Children of Israel from Egypt as its starting point. Soaring melodic lines, shaped and coloured to give the impression of improvised music, act as a transcendent metaphor for the children’s emancipation from slavery, although an uncertain conclusion, ending with a low E flat in the cello, suggests that the victory is a pyrrhic one.
In contrast, the dense tangle heard in the String Quartet No 3 results from the wilful, stubborn and fiercely independent characterisation of each string part, whose lines in the first movement appear to converge as if by accident rather than design. The second movement is textbook MacMillan, with sounds and silences, emptiness and excess foreshadowing the final moments of the quartet – a thread of diminishing lines disappearing into an empty void. Excellent throughout, the Royal Quartet impart a brittle edge to the sound that brings MacMillan’s quartets closer to mid-century European modernists such as Lutosawski and Penderecki. But there are moments of intense, lyric beauty here too.