Stuart MacRae: Violin Concerto
2 Largo e mesto
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