On record – Hebrides Ensemble – Ursa Minor: Chamber Music by Stuart MacRae (Delphian)


Joshua Ellicott (tenor), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone) / Hebrides Ensemble / William Conway (cello)

Stuart MacRae
I am Prometheus (2018); Dark Liquid (2020); Ixion (2013); cladonia bellidiflora (2014, rev. 2020); Tol-Pedn (1999); Lento in memoriam Peter Maxwell Davies (2016); Ursa Minor (2020); fthinoporinos (2001); Diversion (The room behind the room behind the room) (2020); Parable (2013)

Delphian DCD34258 [76’46”]

Producer / Engineer Paul Baxter

Recorded 12-14 August 2021, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A timely follow-up to the NMC release of 15 years ago, this Delphian collection surveys over two decades of Stuart MacRae’s output – indicative of a personal and incrementally evolving idiom such as reaffirms his status among the leading European composers of his generation.

What’s the music like?

Most substantial is Ixion, the luckless figure from Greek mythology represented in a sequence of eight ‘moments’ where the motifs heard at the start variously combine and evolve without any underlying progress – as befits the motion of an endlessly rotating wheel. A fine addition to the repertoire for clarinet trio, as is cladonia bellidiflora for the even more restricted one of violin and cello as it gradually fuses these instruments into an inextricable, lichen-like entity. Inspired by a Cornish headland and alluding to Byrd, the early Tol-Pedn conjures a seascape the more potent for its eschewal of mere realism, whereas the recent Ursa Minor evokes that constellation in comparable terms of incrementally accruing change – amply reinforcing the consistency of MacRae’s musical idiom whatever those developments that have taken place.

A further side of MacRae’s creativity is here conveyed by the shorter pieces. Emerging out of lockdown, Dark Liquid reimagines the valedictory bagatelle associated with Silvestrov, while Diversion has a capricious or even insouciant playfulness. Lento in memoriam Peter Maxwell Davies evokes that composer’s lesser-known piano miniatures in poignantly restrained terms, while fthinoporinos (Greek for ‘autumnal’) is a transcription of the second movement from MacRae’s Violin Concerto (recorded on NMCD115) and an eloquent memorial to Xenakis.

Framing this collection are two vocal works. I am Prometheus uses the composer’s own text to evoke the Titan, neither Man nor God but invested with those attributes – whether good or bad – of both, while he endures a punishment meted out for what MacRae aptly describes as ‘‘his exceptionalism’’. Unfolding from the anger of captivity to the hopelessness of solitude, its musical trajectory is as arresting as it is inevitable – which might also be said of Parable. This stark setting of Wilfred Owen’s poem is appreciably different from that of Britten in the ‘Offertorium’ of his War Requiem, not least in the way the vocal part threads its way through an ensemble where the range of gestures affords a graphic evocation of the biblical story and its fateful ‘distortion’: one whose outcome can only be the collapse into mindless repetition.

Does it all work?

Yes, through MacRae’s imaginative response to the subject-matter at hand as well as an acute sense of timbre and texture in whatever context. It helps when the performances are so finely attuned, a reminder of the close working association between this composer and the Hebrides Ensemble. The contributions from Joshua Ellicott and Marcus Farnsworth are no less ‘inside’ their respective pieces, while the recording is fully up to Delphian’s customary high standard. Nor are the annotations by Tim Ruthford-Johnson found wanting in perceptiveness or insight.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, in the hope further releases of MacRae’s music from this source will be forthcoming. Maybe one or other of the operas that have dominated the composer’s output in recent years will become available on DVD? In the meantime, this Delphian portrait is required listening.



For more information on the disc you can visit the Delphian website – and to buy visit the Presto website To read more on the artists, click on the names of Joshua Ellicott, Marcus Farnsworth, Hebrides Ensemble and William Conway. Meanwhile a site dedicated to Stuart MacRae can be accessed here

1 thought on “On record – Hebrides Ensemble – Ursa Minor: Chamber Music by Stuart MacRae (Delphian)

  1. Pingback: Arcana’s best of 2022 | Arcana.fm

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