JAMES MACMILLAN: Works for Chamber Orchestra with Soloists; From Ayrshire; Tuireadh; Kiss on Wood; …as others see us – Linus Roth, violin/ Julius Berger, cello/ Lars Wouters van den Oudeweijer, clarinet/ Netherlands Radio Ch. Philharmonic/ James Macmillan – Challenge Classics CC72638 (2014), 1:00:56 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

This CD, the third in a series of Challenge Classics recordings of the work of Scottish composer James Macmillan (b. 1959), demonstrate the programmatic connection of the composer to his Scottish homeland and the spiritual life as a Roman Catholic. Additional influences include Celtic folk music, and music from the Far East, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. His major breakthrough work, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, was premiered at the 1990 BBC Proms, and won the 1993 Grammophone Contemporary Music Record of the Year award. The percussion concerto, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, written for Evelyn Glennie in 1992, has received close to 500 performances worldwide. He was Composer/Conductor with the BBC Philharmonic between 2000 and 2009.

From Ayrshire (2005) was written for the violinist Nicola Benedetti, as both came from that area of Scotland. The first section is lyrical and nostalgic, reminiscent of Vaughn William’s Lark Ascending. The second section breaks the mood with rather brief, energetic and folksy segment. Tuireadh (1991) is an instrumental requiem for those who lost their lives in the Alpha Piper North Sea oil and gas rig disaster in 1988. There’s some of Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima here, sounds of birds fluttering away from the disaster scene (trills), and a prominent clarinet part that that vacillates between anger and helplessness. At the end, a distant chorale juxtaposed with a “sighing” orchestral tapestry provides a ray of hope for the future.

Kiss on Wood for cello and strings represents Macmillan’s devotional side. The reference is to a liturgy that is sung as worshippers come forward to venerate the Cross of the Crucified Christ. It goes beyond reverence toward Christ; there’s an inner search for peace and reflection here that is beautifully sung by the cello but the violin led ending leaves the listener’s quest unresolved. This is a beautiful, reflective piece and cellist Julius Berger movingly expresses its spiritual and emotional content.

…as others see us… is a musical portrayal of seven pictures in the National Portrait Gallery in London. A Scottish dance tune is varied with each picture that expresses the character and time of the person portrayed. For example, Henry VIII is represented by a raucous court band contrasted by a distorted version of the well-known melody “Greensleeves,” bookended by an ominous sounding tabor (tambourine)—the sounds of a drum the victims heard before they were beheaded by the king. T.S Eliot is represented by a reverential viol polyphony (love for England) interrupted by jazzy foxtrot interludes (his American origins). Macmillan’s command of the different combinations of instruments that the 21st century orchestra provides gives him many opportunities to flex his orchestral muscles in creating musical illustrations of the paintings. It would have been helpful to provide a specific link to the actual paintings depicted on the National Portrait Gallery website.  Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable sampling of Macmillan’s  oeuvre.

—Robert Moon