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Stuart MacRae

Publisher: Novello & Co

Violin Concerto (2001)
Novello & Co Ltd
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
Year Composed
29 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
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Programme Note
Stuart MacRae Violin Concerto (2001)
Stuart MacRae: Violin Concerto

1 Giusto
2 Largo e mesto
3 Animoso
4 Malinconico

Stuart MacRae’s Violin Concerto is, in the formal sense, and anti-Concerto inasmuch as it subverts the traditional Romantic prototype of the genre. A perceived imbalance in the traditional model, where the first movement assumes great structural significance, leaving the remaining movements frequently to act as extraneous appendices, led him to the creation of a distinct form in which the final movement carries the emotional and structural weight of the piece. As a further consequence, the typically lyrical writing for solo violin that one normally encounters is also reserved until the final movement, only after it has been properly earned.

The first movement unfolds nervously through a complex series of interactions and oppositions. From the opening, the solo part’s breathless stammer undergoes a controlled erosion of both pitch, which begins by circumventing a tentatively established centre around E natural, and rhythm, where the rapid uniformity of the solo becomes slowly infected by shifting variations of internal pulse in the orchestral part. This process engenders a constantly fluctuating continuum of textures and characters which oscillates spasmodically between areas of stability and instability. For example, the highly restrained environment of the opening paragraphs first gives way to a scorrevole section in which the pitch-space is suddenly exploded, and later to a subdued, more lyrical section based on alternating harmonies which returns at the close of the movement. The solo violin participates in a succession of interactions with different ensembles and soloists, like a dialogue of many voices rather than a duel between soloist and orchestra; but, although it is in a constant state of flux, the solo part becomes the most cohesive element in the fabric of this movement and instigates the climactic passage.

The second movement - a homage to the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, who died while the piece was being written - conveys a much more sustained narrative. It is a melancholic elegy, full of dark autumnal sonorities in the low wind and brass, in which the violin reaches upwards in long, eloquent phrases that start to lose their internal momentum by constantly sliding between and around the intended notes. The orchestra, meanwhile, accompanies with variants of alternating chord patterns from the first movement, rising menacingly to a powerful climax that ‘breaks’ the violin part into a short cadenza before receding into the distance.

Further material introduced in the first movement is explored in the third movement scherzo, which focuses almost entirely on the orchestra. Intended by the composer as a ‘sorbet’ to cleanse the palate before the final movement, it trembles with latent kinetic energy and then careers headlong into a kaleidoscopic volley of rapid-fire exchanges amongst the orchestra, after which the discourse becomes completely fractured and diffused.

In the last movement, the lyrical capacity of the violin, prefigured occasionally in earlier movements, is finally let free in a long, improvisatory line based on fragments and remembrances of the preceding movements like an accompanied cadenza. Although the solo part is essentially rhapsodic in character, the inexorable increase in volume and density of the orchestral parts transmits an intense, climax-oriented directionality. In addition, the alternating chords that have steadily persisted since the opening of the Concerto reach their apotheosis over a massively unfurling structural polyrhythm between soloist and orchestra. The piece finally subsides to a single line of the violin which intones a song of parting to remnants of material heard throughout the work.

Programme note by Martin Halstead © BBC

Score preview:

  • Ensemble
    BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
    Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Loré Lixenberg (mezzo)
    Ilan Volkov/Susanna Mälkki
"The craggy Stirling choruses, filled with brassy evocations of the history of the Stirling Castle, formed the rasping, sputtering, yet utterly lucid starting point of a program culminating in MacRae's Violin Concerto, surely one of the finest, most eloquent works of its kind since Berg."
Conrad Wilson, The Herald,24/11/2003
"And in MacRae's Violin Concerto, interpreted with a searching vitality by Tedi Papavrami, the melancholic glissandos of the second movement and the death drum imminence of the conversation between violin and orchestra gave a sense of closure on five years which promises much for the future."
Sarah Jones, The Scotsman,24/11/2003
It is testament to the richness of this concerto that although it has already been exposed to a wide range of interpretations, the sense is that there is still more to discover.
Tom Service, The Guardian,24/08/2002
Stuart MacRae’s remarkable Violin Concerto, a work that doesn’t so much stand the model of the concerto on its head as turn it inside out. A mesmeric piece, which deserves a review to itself, with newly transparent textures from MacRae, and, in soloist Christian Tetzlaff, surely its ideal interpreter, a violinist whose intense and introverted style is made for this searching, anti-rhetorical composition.
Michael Tumelty, The Herald,23/08/2002
The delicious impertinence in the opening bars – tetchy rhythmic repetitions – set the tone of a relationship that persists between soloist and orchestra throughout the four movements… MacRae’s music sings, as Tetzlaff’s bird-like tone demonstrated, and it fizzes with eagerness and youth. This has to be one of MacRae’s brightest creations yet, daring and passionate in its self-belief.
Kenneth Walton, The Scotsman,23/08/2002
Stuart MacRae's Violin concerto, given by Tasmin Little and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins, instead showed an intensly intelligent, sensitive and fertile young mind - MacRae is only in his mid-twenties - tackling the issues of what a concerto might be. He came up with a solution that, however unfamiliar some of the sounds, drew his audience inexorably towards, and inside, the piece. The piece is in four movements, but resemblance to a Romantic scheme of things ends there. The soloist insinuates her presence from the opening with a whispered monotone, before evolving various dialogues. There is a sense of finding a way, trying this path and that. A slow movement, composed as a memorial to Iannis Xenakis, whose own three-dimensional, solid but shapely sound world is sometimes evoked, has immense eloquence, dark yet ripe, while the Animoso third movement - intended as a palate-cleansing 'sorbet', according to the programme note, and that is exactly how it works - looks to the convulsive rythmic breakdowns familiar from Ligeti's Horn Trio. Finally, the Malinconico fourth movement is one vast, slowly attained climax, heard of singular poignancy, beautifuly written for the solo instrument. Indeed, beautiful writing is a feature of the work. Whether in growling brass sounds or delicate woodwind texture, MacRae explores existing sonorities rather than trying to find sounds in an instrument that might not be there. MacRae has complete integrity, Desite the obvious models - who does not have obvious models at 25? - he writes what eh means, exercises ruthless self-discipline and allows his music the breadth its lyrical aspects require. He also listens hard to himself, ensuring that no moment of sound or silence is surplus to requirements. He is already a busy man, Let us hope that the torrent of commissions with which young composers are often deluged does not prove too much, and that he is given the space to evolve what seems to me the rarest of gifts, rather than being tempted to produce production-line music."
Stephen Pettitt, The Sunday Times,05/08/2001
"IT's a serious, brutal work where beauty appears fleetingly in a bleak, skittering landscape. (...) the first, second, and fourth movements were a fine example of honest, old-fashioned modernism."
Anna Picard, The Independent,05/08/2001
"It's a brave work because it dares to challenge an audience with the subtle and the strange. The piece plays with expectation about what a concerto should sound like The first movement seemed as if it was going to become an energetic toccata for full orchestra, but the texture was never allowed to become stable. Instead, the music dissolved into tiny, volatile conversations between the soloist and members of the orchestra: another solo violin, a flute, and a clarinet, even a snare drum. A sinewy chorale suddenly emerged in the orchestra, and the movement was over as enigmatically as it had begun. But there was nothing half-hearted about MacRae's games with his audience, or about Little's vibrant performance.If the violin was trapped within the orchestra's vortex in the first movement, in the second it was dislocated from the ensemble. Little's intense lines were in a different world from her understated accompaniment. But soon her music was eclipsed by an enourmous orchestral texture. The orchestra dominated the aphoristic third movement, but Little was finally allowed to escape their influence in the fourth. She wove a seamless haunting solo above a bead of sustained chords; there was a final woodwind interjection, and her solo line disappeared into silence. This is a richly misterious work, which also manages to be vividly immediate, especially when it is performed with the authority of Little and Brabbins."
Tom Service, The Guardian,02/08/2001
"This substantial, almost half-hour Violin Concerto has its share of lyrical music, and seems beautifully written to fit Little's playing. But one of it's chief virtues is that it saves both the full unfolding of this more rhapsodic approach and the concerto's real centre of gravity for the last of its four movements, creating a satisfying progresson from the fragmentation of opening movement via the second movement's elegy for Xenakis and the third-movement scherzo to a finale which triumphantly avoids burn-out. More idiosycratically, MacRae takes advantage of his considerable orchestration skills not merely to avoid swamping the violinist but to provide a captivating, yet always musically and structurally integrated, range of contrasting approaches to the interaction and opposition of solo and both the full orchestra and its component parts. From the ingenious accompaniement of just three cellos offered to the soloist at the work's outset, through prominent solos for cor anglais and, in the last movement, horn and trumpet, this concerto takes bold economies and enourmous delight in devising interplays between the solo violin and all shapes and sizes of accompaniement which offer much more than mere accompanying. Little, the BBCSO and Brabins managed both to recreate these constantly erupting moments of delight, and - even though the composer suggested at the talk that they had never played the work right through before the premiere performance itself - to link them together convincingly. I look forward to hearing MacRae's Violin Concerto again, and to following the future progress of one of our best young composers."
Keith Potter, The Independent,02/08/2001
"...the premiere of Stuart MacRae's new Violin Concerto proved one of the highlights. The piece is cast in four contrasting movements, and there is constant dialogue between soloists and orchestra. Ferocious, growling chords at the start are set against a hesitant opening statement from the violin, but however fragmented the lightly scored music may seem, it sustains an impressive logic. Tasmin Little met the challenges of the solo part with unflappable grace. The elegiac second movement, concentrated in it's utterance, gained intensity from Little's traversal of the slithering lines. Momentum came and went in the scherzo, but there was no let-up in its tension, and Little was allowed to indulge her lyricism in the wide-ranging lines of the slow final. (...) MacRae has surely written an important new concerto."
John Allison, The Times,02/08/2001
MacRae's Violin concerto, of which Tasmin Little gave the world premiere in Prom 14, begins with a dance band snare drum and a snatch of a jig on the fiddle. These two elements continue throughout the four movements, lending the work a raw, local flavour: In the largo, the soloist soars high and pure over craggy winds before descending with a graceful glissando. The scherzo pricks the air with a pointillist's delicate staccato gestures. In the melancholy finale, slowly intensifying strings present a delicious burning dissonance before the soloist concludes with a quiet, understanding cadenza."
Rick Jones, Evening Standard,01/08/2001
"It is a serious and significant piece of work that is tautly constructed yet broad and flexiblein it's expressive scope. While the programme note referred to it as an anti-concerto, such a definition seems too extreme - negative, even - for a work that certainly takes the genre down different avenues, but by no means completely subverts the traditional concerto's values. Even when it does, the results are stimulating. The orchestral and solo forces here complement one another, and make a texture in which the texture is constantly shifting. MAcRae's writing for the violin is both pointed and mellifluous, always sympathetic. And there is an ear-catching clarity to his use of the orchestra.He hears and exploits the instruments' natural timbres and ranges, and deploys them to enhance the sharp definition of mood with which he differenciates between his four movements, whether in shimmering scintillas of sound or in the more ominous blending of low sonorities. Variety and incident are there aplenty; so are potent atmosphere, iridescent colouring and strong musical character"
Geoffrey Norris, Daily Telegraph,01/08/2001
"...revisits the traditional genre with masterly confidence yet makes it utterly strange."
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,01/01/0001
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