Macmillan, Maxwell Davies, Beamish
The works on this album invite quiet contemplation of worlds far removed from the distractions and sensory overload of city life and, increasingly, of life lived before screens or behind screens. The composers represented here all have a connection with Scotland, as do many of their compositions.
After the Gould Piano Trio's long acquaintance with the riches of James MacMillan's Fourteen Little Pictures they were delighted when he agreed to write a 2nd piano trio for them. They said 'Nothing could have prepared us for the contrasting nature of the new work - embracing high spirits and an element of comedy, rather than the emotionally moving and intense narrative of his earlier work.'
Composer and Viola player Sally Beamish moved to Scotland and joined James Macmillan in contributing to a rapidly growing Scottish contemporary arts scene. The term 'piobaireachd', known to many by its anglicized equivalent, pibroch, refers to a distinct genre within the Highland bagpipe tradition. 'It is thought by some that the Pibroch may have been brought to Scotland from Cremona in Italy in the Fifteenth Century by the MacCrimmons,' notes the composer, 'and so [it] may well have roots intertwined with those better-known baroque and classical variation forms, such as the Chaconne.'
Peter Maxwell Davies found inspiration for his Piano Trio in the remote and desolate land of Fair Isle, midway between his home on Sanday and the Shetland Isles, where changing winds and weather patterns can rule on matters of life and death.
Recently compared to the Beaux Arts Trio by the Washington Post for their 'musical fire' and dedication to the genre, the Gould Piano Trio continue to bring the masterpieces of their repertoire to an ever-widening public.
- Sleeve Notes
The place where art is created may not influence its content. But the artist's imaginary landscape, the visions, memories and half memories of an internal world more real than reality itself, surely does. With so much music performed and consumed today in vast cities, by those whose lives revolve around the business ' and busyness ' of urban economies, it can be difficult to connect with the remote places and spiritual sanctuaries that have inspired countless composers since before history's dawn. The works on this album invite quiet contemplation of worlds far removed from the distractions and sensory overload of city life and, increasingly, of life lived before screens or behind screens. It will be for each listener to reflect on what those worlds might be, whether they transcend the mundane and open windows onto something other. In many ways they belong to a rich tradition of illustrative pieces of chamber music, compositions rooted in the deep cultural soil of place and collective memory. Scotland's monumental resource of visual and aural imagery, while not the sole influence, clearly contributed to the creative forces behind each composition in the Gould Trio's programme.
James MacMillan's Fourteen Little Pictures (also known as his Piano Trio No.1), completed in Glasgow in March 1997, is a set of miniatures 'stitched together,' as the composer puts it, to form a work of considerable scope and great expressive variety. MacMillan conceived its section as individual pieces, each with its own character and complete in identity; however, he recognised sufficient points in common to be able to create a larger frame to support a continuous sequence of Little Pictures. He extended several 'common threads' between the pieces, as he notes, 'to establish references, resonances and recapitulations. This was to allow a sense of scale and unity to be projected onto a larger canvas.'
The first miniature opens in ferocious mood, propelled by an upward surging scale for violin and cello and buttressed by the piano part's strident ninths. MacMillan scatters his score with abrupt dynamic and textural contrasts, lurching from fff to pp and shifting registers from high to low and back again. The movement's central section projects dry staccato piano chords through a veil of string tremolandos, the tranquil yet unsettling preface to a brief echo of its opening bars. Traces of the second 'picture' arise in a chromatic melody for violin and cello, slowly stated at first before unfolding as an elaborate, lyrical duet for the two instruments. As so often in MacMillan's work, the soaring violin melody is tinged with fleeting grace notes and the modal colours of Scottish folksong (although without trace of pastiche). The violin's song becomes more ardent, more insistent as it moves towards the third 'picture', a movement in which piano and cello conduct a nervous dialogue beneath the haunting cry of sustained notes in the violin. The latter's long dying glissando intensifies the movement's sense of mystery which in turn is challenged by an energetic link into 'picture' four, with its jaunty piano part marked to be played 'lovingly, childlike, with a lilt'. For all the movement's rhythmic complexity, it remains childlike at heart, playful in the piano part's closing bass riff.
As in the first movement, the trio's three instruments share equal billing in the fifth 'picture'; the cello's plaintive song demands attention, however, while its companions provide a running commentary of countermelodies. MacMillan recalls the fourth movement's rocking bass line as a bridge to his sixth 'picture' and goes on to create a soundworld of violent contrasts, one in which the piano's outbursts constantly subvert the violin and cello's Shostakovich-like lament. Violin and piano gradually emerge as duo partners in the seventh movement, appearing behind the violin's tentative solo and moving towards a cathartic explosion of energy as the eighth 'picture', an adagio for violin and cello, comes into view. The spirit of sacred chant, albeit in its most elaborate solo form, prevails here until the piano's 'eruptive' return in the ninth movement, unleashed as soloist following the string players' fading glissando. Material from the first 'picture' launches and sustains the tenth movement, subtly varied and developed, then capped by echoes of the opening movement's chorale-like duo for
violin and cello. Silence is broken by the distant rolling rumble of a rapid piano scale, repeated many times over and becoming ever more present, 'like thunder', as MacMillan marks in the score.
'The eleventh 'picture',' notes the composer, 'is the climax of the music's progress where the trio all play fffff, desolato, martellato, feroce, etc.' Clangorous piano chords dominate and drive the movement, although their momentum is finally arrested by a long pause for silence and the arrival of pictures 'twelve', an austere piano solo, and 'thirteen', with its slow-motion recollection of material from the sixth movement. 'The fourteenth and final 'picture' brings the music full circle,' observes MacMillan in his programme note, 'at first presenting some of the material from the first 'picture' but quickly transforming it into a long piano postlude marked 'teneroso, delicato, lontano e semplice'.' The piece, so rich in colour and contrast, evaporates into silence from a sequence of fierce pedal notes in the piano, punched into life by the player's fist.
MacMillan's Piano Trio No.2 was conceived as a single, through-composed movement, launched in celebratory fashion with an insistent sequence of piano octaves. The music's vibrant nature and playful spirit are tempered slightly by what the composer describes as 'short brittle phrases on the two string instruments, sometimes sul ponticello, other times pizzicato; sometimes with little, sliding glissandi, other times in surging chromatic scales.' MacMillan soon effects a transition to another mood state, gentle and reflective, in which the violin's expressive modal melody and lapping cello drones offer refuge from the opening section's skittish energy. The piano writing here remains connected to what has gone before and, with the help of throbbing piano triads and a fanfare figure on the strings, allows the composer to break away from introspection. He describes what follows as 'a very fast, rollicking 'music-hall' idea, quite clownish in character', which alternates 'back and forth with a stately, lilting waltz theme.' Shades of Shostakovich pass like clouds over the music's surface, developing an unsettling sense of irony and impermanence. MacMillan strips his work down to bare essentials in its central largo, preserving the idea of a waltz in the piano accompaniment while the cello touches darker regions in its sustained melody. 'This segues into a fuller version of the earlier modal theme, before an abrupt recapitulation of the clownish idea,' notes the composer. He finally recalls the opening theme and develops its material in a coda of captivating power and élan.
Sally Beamish, who spent the first part of her career as a professional viola player in London, moved to Scotland a quarter of a century ago to establish her new life as a full-time composer. The relocation made all the difference. She and her husband, the cellist Robert Irvine, founded the Chamber Group of Scotland in company with James MacMillan. Her work, like that of MacMillan, has contributed to the surging confidence of the Scottish arts scene. While the origins and influences of Piobaireachd belong to Scotland and the Gaelic culture of her highlands and islands, the work was commissioned by the London Smetana Trio and first performed by them in Lewes on New Year's Day 1992. The term piobaireachd, known to many by its anglicized equivalent, pibroch, refers to a distinct genre within the Highland bagpipe tradition, regarded as the repertoire's 'classical' core. All pibrochs, whether ancient or recently composed, are cast in theme and variations form; the theme functions as a simple ground for increasingly elaborate melodic ornamentation.
Beamish became aware of piobaireachd when she wrote a piece for schools inspired by Neil Munro's The Lost Pibroch, the first of the Scottish author's Sheiling Stories. She incorporated bagpipes into her work and had them play the piobaireachds mentioned in Munro's tale. 'For the legendary 'Lost Pibroch' ' a haunting melody which causes men and animals to desert their home and roam the world ' I wrote my own full pibroch,' the composer recalls. She chose its melody as the basis of Piobaireachd.
There are various set types of [pibroch] variation, using a simple paraphrase of the original melody, laced with ever more intricate ornamentation, so that the music builds to a frenzy of rapid gracenotes,' observes Beamish in her programme note to Piobaireachd. The theme, she continues, is usually repeated. 'I have done exactly this, but ... have also used more contemporary methods of variation, experimenting with separation of ornament and melody into different keys, and even developing the 'drone', which extends downwards by a tone in each variation, so that in the end it encompasses a complete whole-tone scale.' Beamish dedicated Piobaireachd to the piper Annie Grant, who guided her study of pibroch, offered advice about its form and content and introduced her to the genre's legend and lore. 'It is thought by some that the Pibroch may have been brought to Scotland from Cremona in Italy in the Fifteenth Century by the MacCrimmons,' notes the composer, 'and so [it] may well have roots intertwined with those better-known baroque and classical variation forms, such as the Chaconne.'
Peter Maxwell Davies found inspiration for his Piano Trio in the remote and desolate land of Fair Isle, midway between his home on Sanday and the Shetland Isles, where changing winds and weather patterns can rule on matters of life and death. While the island's barren landscape touched the composer, he was struck above all by the community spirit and resilience of its inhabitants. He discovered the place and its people in July 2002 when he attended Fair Isle's first music festival. 'The physical remoteness and craggy beauty of the place are well-known,' Maxwell Davies recalls, 'but it was the involvement of the population of seventy or so souls in the mounting of a new work by Alasdair Stout, a Shetlander from there, which struck home most. This made demands on the island chorus and the folk musicians which would daunt professionals, but which, in performance, gave everyone concerned huge satisfaction. I was most of all moved through the extraordinary expression of a community's essence ' one felt that a challenging piece of new music had really
permeated, through months of rehearsal, into the spirit of Fair Isle, to become a part of its fabric in a way new music seldom can ' affecting and even changing the lives of a very special community.'
A Voyage to Fair Isle stands as its composer's 'attempt to express my delight at, and appreciation of this ... experience.' The piece was created in September 2002 for the Grieg Piano Trio and premiered by them the following January in Kongsberg, Norway. Maxwell Davies built his work from the raw melodic material of the plainsong proper to the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary (8 September), the composer's birthday and the day on which he began writing his Piano Trio. The chant, alluded to in the single-movement composition's expansive slow introduction, underpins the entire work. It flows through the jagged contours of the subsequent allegro, where it is reimagined as a jaunty folk tune.
'I have tried to capture some characteristics of the local dance music, in the course of rigorous isometric transformations,' observes Maxwell Davies. He develops his material over the course of a slow central section; rather than recall the music of the opening thereafter, the composer continues the process of thematic transformation in a helter-skelter scherzo. 'Before and after the slow development, the flow is interrupted by short direct tributes to the indigenous musical tradition [of the Shetland Islands]; the tunes are mine, arising from, and returning to, the all-pervading plainsong ' but fashioned 'in style'.' A Voyage to Fair Isle draws its expressive power from the meeting of sacred and secular, a union celebrated and intensified in the work's closing section.
- Press Reviews
"The Gould Piano Trio bring tremendous warmth, precision, and integrity to their performance"
"... beautiful and richly complex disc"
- BBC Music Magazine
"This is a most convincing program of contemporary trios… full of very expressive music played with character and recorded particularly well.”
- American Record Guide
[of the Macmillan] "moments are fascinating and the performers explore its nooks and crannies with ebullience"
- Chamber Music Magazine
“...there’s much to enjoy… beautifully played and recorded CD”
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