JAMES MACMILLAN: A Scotch Bestiary; Piano Concerto No. 2 for piano and strings – Wayne Marshall, organ & piano/BBC Philharmonic/James MacMillan – Chandos CHAN 10377, 63:46 ****:

Seeing the name of the soloist here – on organ for the first work and the piano soloist in the second – had me double-checking the name of the pianist in Bernstein’s Wonderful Town which I had just reviewed. It’s the same Wayne Marshall. He’s a UK native and has performed internationally on both organ and piano as well as in jazz.  James MacMillan comes from Scottish heritage and has close connections with Celtic folk music. One of his major works has been the percussion concerto he wrote for Evelyn Glennie, Veni, veni Emmanuel.

His “Enigmatic variations on a zoological carnival at a Caledonian exhibition for organ and orchestra” (as the work’s subtitle reads) was obviously stimulated by Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals.  His satire targets not only animals but humans as well, and another inspiration for the work was the great American animators who represented human characters in animal form.  The suite portrays human archetypes and personalities MacMillan found in Scottish life. As the subtitle might reveal, another stimulus to the composer was Elgar’s Enigma Variations. He even pokes fun at Mussorgsky’s oft-repeated theme from Pictures at an Exhibition which connects up the various musical depictions of the paintings. The work is divided into two major sections: the menagerie both caged and uncaged. Among the section titles: Her Serene and Ubiquitous Majesty: Queen Bee; Uncle Tom Cat and his Chickens; Scottish Patriots; Big Fish in a Small Pond.

The three-movement piano concerto is based on various Scottish folk dances. The first and longest movement has a desperate-sounding jig as a central element, and the final movement uses a repeated reel theme akin to the finale of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.  Marshall shines in some spectacular solo passages and the entire concerto is in a more directly accessible tonal world than that of the Bestiary.  Chandos’ sonics are state-of-the-art for 44.1K CDs today.

– John Sunier