James MacMillan - The Berserking (Piano Concerto)

Sunday 1st December 1996
James MacMillan - The Berserking (Piano Concerto)

STYLE: Classical
RATING 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9
LABEL: BMG 09026683282

Reviewed by John Irvine

It's been a good few years since this work was first performed and it's been a long wait for it to appear on CD. It's been worth the wait, though. To cut a long review short, basically the music is outstanding, brilliantly original and while MacMillan excels in belonging to the "CrashBangWalJop" school of contemporary music, there are moments of melodic beauty which could see this piece being recycled soon as the backdrop to a commercial, which is the normal fate of all really good classical music! If you don't want to read the rest of the review then go and buy the disc. For the more patient Cross Rhythms reader...read on... Unlike many of MacMillan's recent pieces, this one has little to do with Roman Catholicism. In fact the origin of the abstract idea behind the piece is quite pagan! As MacMillan puts it, "Berserkers were warriors common to the Vikings and the ancient Celtic tribes who would work themselves into a frenzy with mead, mushrooms and hyperventilation to achieve performances of ferocious courage in battle." Such drive and energy could produce great results, but the Berserker was often unaware of danger from stealthy attacks, it is the theme of misplaced, misdirected and uncontrolled energy whether in ancient warriors or in modern day political life that MacMillan develops. The first movement reflects a continual state of hyperactivity, with the energy of the piece always trying to resolve itself in a musical climax, but never reaching it, and eventually collapsing into an exhausted quiet middle movement. This pause brings its benefits, and reflection leads to a disciplined and directed energy in the final movement. Whereas in the first movement piano and orchestra are at odds as the piano tries to overwhelm the orchestra, by the third and final movement piano and orchestra fight on the same side as equal partners. As MacMillan's fame and reputation has grown, the type of commissions which he has worked on have changed from the small instrumental ensembles of only a few years ago through commissions for pieces for full orchestras to the composition of operas. MacMillan is writing for bigger resources now and the three pieces which accompany "Berserking" on this CD are examples of this. "Sinfonietta" was a 20 minute piece for the London Sinfonietta. "Britannia" was commissioned by BT for a concert tour of new music which they were sponsoring - and they got more than they bargained for: "Britannia" is a parody of the elements of the British nation, particularly as we are perceived by others. It would be a hilarious piece were its truths not so close to home; the parody of the lager lout in particular gives pause for thought. All is not doom and gloom: "Sowetan Spring" is a short piece expressing the joy at Nelson Mandela's release and the hope for a new South Africa without racial discrimination. It is a ray of optimism in a cynical and hopeless world. A recording of great merit which I strongly recommend.

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.

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