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Sir James MACMILLAN (b 1959)
Violin Concerto (2009) [27:24]
Symphony No. 4 (2014-15) [37:55]
Vadim Repin (violin)
Gillian de Groote (voice)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles
rec. 6 March 2016, City Halls, Glasgow (concerto); 3 August 2015, Royal Albert Hall, London (symphony)
ONYX 4157 [65:24]

It’s great news that Onyx, in collaboration with the BBC, is able to bring us recordings of two important recent scores by James MacMillan. The recording of the symphony preserves its first performance at the 2015 BBC Proms. I’m not sure if the Violin Concerto was recorded live or under studio conditions but there’s no audible evidence of an audience. The Promenaders are commendably silent and applause is withheld for a few precious seconds at the end of the symphony.

I’ll make two general comments before considering each work. Firstly, the recordings themselves are excellent. There’s an abundance of audible detail, climaxes are thrillingly reported and as well as the detail the ‘big picture’ of each work is very well conveyed. In the concerto Vadim Repin is given the prominence he needs but is not balanced aggressively forward. Secondly, we know that BBC orchestras are adept at playing new music and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra really live up to that reputation here. As both works were new to me before this CD arrived I lack a yardstick against which to judge the performances, yet in all the listening I’ve done I’ve not detected any tentativeness or anything that sounds ‘wrong’. On the contrary, the performances exude assurance and conviction and a very high level of technical accomplishment. If anything, the symphony is even more compellingly presented than the concerto but in saying that I don’t wish to diminish in any way the achievement of Donald Runnicles and his players in the concerto. Assurance and technical skill are key requirements in both scores for it sounds as if MacMillan makes tremendous demands on the musicians.

The concerto is cast in three movements which are entitled ‘Dance’, ‘Song’ and ‘Song and Dance’ It was written for Vadim Repin, who premiered it with the LSO and Valery Gergiev in London in May 2010. It is dedicated to him and ‘in memoriam Ellen MacMillan (1935-2008)’. The work is scored for double woodwind, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, piano, strings and timpani. A substantial array of percussion instruments is involved though, apparently, only two players are required: it sounds like more.

At the start of ‘Dance’ we hear a fast theme on the violin. This is vibrant with nervous energy. At 0:35 the violin is then given a soaring, singing melody though what the composer aptly describes in his note as the “punchy” opening material soon reasserts itself. The composer tells us that these ideas form the main thrust of the movement’s development. He should know, but to my less expert ears it seems that the punchy side of his musical thought had much greater prominence than the second idea. Much of the music is very driven and the present performance is very exciting. At around 4:00 the music makes what MacMillan describes as a “significant detour” into the realms of the Scottish reel. Detour it may be, but it seems to me to fit with the rest of the movement seamlessly. The soloist’s virtuosity is stretched in this demanding music and he gets little rest but Repin is indomitable.

‘Song’ begins with a lovely oboe theme to which eventually the violinist adds a very decorated counter-melody. In this movement there’s a good deal of highly expressive writing for the solo instrument while the accompaniment is very distinctive and interesting. MacMillan draws our attention to a passage (5:30-6:31) in which the solo part is marked Semplice, child-like, folksy, dancing. He explains that this section, which has Irish overtones, is a memory of childhood. What he doesn’t say is that the accompaniment is beautifully delicate. Though the music becomes gritty for a while thereafter the Semplice music is revisited, most effectively, towards the end. At that point the music’s appeal is enhanced by the involvement of a flute (or piccolo) complementing the solo violin.

The finale, ‘Song and Dance’ draws together the moods of the previous two movements though I detected less of the ‘Song’ element. This movement contains an interesting addition to the scoring, described as follows on the Boosey & Hawkes website: “[The] third movement contains a fragment of text in German (by the composer), which should be spoken by voices from the orchestra, on or off stage. If this is not possible the text may be spoken by a single voice.” Both options are used here: members of the orchestra speak at the beginning but elsewhere the voice of Gillian de Groote is heard. MacMillan’s orchestration has been ear-catching throughout but in this movement the textures are especially vivid and innovative, not least in the way he uses the percussion. At 6:23 the speaker’s voice is heard alone before a cathartic orchestral climax after which the violin is left “high and dry” to play a substantial cadenza. Once that is over there’s a brief coda before the work ends on a strident wind/brass chord.

The concerto is a fascinating work and it’s superbly rendered here.

I’ve heard two of James MacMillan’s three previous symphonies. The first, entitled ‘Vigil’ (1997) was part of his Easter triptych, Triduum. The complete triptych was recorded by Osmo Vänskä for BIS and the symphony itself appears on BIS-CD-990. The Second Symphony, for chamber orchestra, followed in 2000. That’s the one I’ve yet to hear though it has been recorded by the composer, conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (BIS-CD-1119). The Third Symphony, ‘Silence’ followed fairly soon afterwards in 2002 and was recorded, again in a performance directed by MacMillan, this time with the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos CHAN 10275). So, the first three symphonies were composed in fairly quick succession but then MacMillan waited a dozen years before returning to the genre.

The composer comments in a note that his previous three essays in symphonic form were all programmatic in some way but his Fourth Symphony is an abstract composition. It is cast in one single movement and it is in itself is a prodigious feat to sustain this argument in a single span for nearly 40 minutes. The large orchestra comprises double woodwind, four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, timpani, an even larger percussion battery than in the concerto (three players this time), harp, celesta, piano and strings.

One interesting feature of this work is that it is a homage to the Scottish composer, Robert Carver (c.1485-c 1570). MacMillan has already paid one act of overt musical homage to Carver through his a cappella choral work O bone Jesu (2002), a work commissioned by The Sixteen and deliberately designed to be programmed with Carver’s own setting of the same text (review). In the new symphony MacMillan includes what he terms “allusions” to another Carver piece, the 10-part Mass Dum sacrum mysterium. Intriguingly MacMillan chooses to have the references to Carver’s Mass played by the back desks of the viola, cello and double bass sections. This creates a fascinating distancing effect. I wonder to what extent the treatment of Carver’s music in this way serves as a metaphor for the fact that Carver’s music, which MacMillan sang as a student, is frequently at the back of his mind?

The symphony is packed with incident and imaginative, often dramatic gestures. The use of the brass is especially memorable. For example at 15:21 there’s an extended climax during which a series of majestic brass fanfares play out against a string counter-melody. A little later on (at 17:53) after the music has come to a sudden and brief full stop we hear ecstatically dancing string material and underneath it, played softly, is what sounds to me like a subdued reprise of the brass fanfares we heard in all their glory just minutes before.

If the brass writing is memorable then MacMillan’s use of the other sections of the orchestra is no less imaginative. Though the woodwind and brass are often required to play loudly the strings are by no means subservient. One episode that particularly caught my ear was a passage beginning at 25:02 where the cellos lead the rest of the string choir into a rich, deeply felt section which is briefly punctuated by potent brass and percussion. The percussion add a tremendous amount of colour throughout the score and their contribution reaches its apogee at 36:21 when there’s a veritable outburst from the percussion section during which it seems that every conceivable type of gong and bowl is among the instruments adding to the sound. As soon as the percussion have had their say in this manner the final chord wells up from the orchestra and then dies away; it’s all a most effective way to end the symphony.

I was gripped by this music and by the performance. However, for all the listening to the symphony that I’ve done so far I don’t believe I’ve come anywhere near a full understanding of MacMillan’s thought processes in this complex and richly-imagined score. I need to do more to get beneath its surface and that’s something I’m keen to do. It is a remarkable work and one that will repay yet more attention. The performance by Donald Runnicles and the BBCSSO is vivid and strongly projected but there are many passages calling for delicacy and finesse and the players are no less successful here. The recording has tremendous impact, which is appropriate for this music.

These are two important scores which I urge all admirers of the music of James MacMillan to hear. He has been splendidly served by the performers and engineers responsible for this very fine CD.

John Quinn



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