Review: MacMillan’s Second Piano Trio

First published in The Herald on 7 July, 2014

Gould Piano Trio
Crail Community Hall

James MacMillan’s Second Piano Trio was specially co-commissioned to mark this year’s 10th edition of the East Neuk Festival. The premiere was in Bath earlier this summer; for this first Scottish outing, the Gould Piano Trio paired it with an earlier MacMillan work for the same configuration.

That older work ended up eclipsing the new one. Fourteen Little Pictures (1997) is among the composer’s most compelling chamber pieces, full of hot-tempered vitality and trademark MacMillan soundbites. Craggy outcrops lapse into misty, keening threnodies; the piano lays down gravelly rumbles while the strings wrestle or intertwine in long-lined laments. The title refers to the stations of the cross, and as usual with MacMillan’s religious music the imagery comes in bold, passionate strokes. The work opens on an irrepressible surge and the energy never dissipates – it closes on repeated piano hammerblows, MacMillan never shy about the symbolism in his music.

The single-movement Second Piano Trio shares many of Little Pictures’ tricks, right down to that obstinate repetition. An opening motoric figure returns again and again; busy textures built from interlocking patterns cut to hushed, wispy solos. More surprising are the crazed boogie-woogie piano licks and the bittersweet waltz in eerie string harmonics. These pastiches are ear-catching but it’s hard to see how they add up.

The Goulds played magnificently, bringing lively definition to the Pictures and impassioned drama to the new work (the cellist finished with a broken string, so fierce had been her attack). East Neuk’s director, Svend Brown, decided that the new piece should be played twice. It was a good idea in principle, but in practice the second hearing did an already-repetitive work no favours.