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Sir James MACMILLAN (b. 1950)
Violin Concerto [35:55]
Symphony No. 4 [27:24]
Vadim Repin (violin)
Gillian de Groote (voice)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles
rec. 3 August 2015, Royal Albert Hall, London (symphony), 6 March 2016, City Halls, Glasgow (concerto)
ONYX 4157 [1:05:24]

Two major symphonic works by leading Scottish composer James MacMillan are played on this excellent CD from Onyx by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles with Vadim Repin as soloist in the Violin Concerto.

This lively concerto is actually the longer of the two piece on the CD. It begins with an almost Latin American, tango-like lilt and quickly sets the tension between violin and full orchestra in the first movement, ‘Dance’. This vivacity and sense of strain, almost, are maintained throughout as if to suggest that a violin soloist in a violin concerto should be afforded as much opportunity for virtuosity as a fiddler at an informal dance - where exuberance and delight are the reason for the music. Indeed, the first movement alludes to the Scottish reel in the most integrated and appropriate way: there is nothing precious about MacMillan’s writing.

The second movement, ‘Song’ is the longest - at ten and a half minutes. Perhaps surprisingly, it has less lyrical material, and more discrete (at times almost choppy) episodes than the Dance movement. Nevertheless, MacMillan’s writing has an almost dream-like quality with reference to the floating nature of Irish folksong.

Finally ‘Song and Dance’ in some ways resolves this dichotomy: it is a movement that, while still placing the violin to the fore, sets it in relation to the orchestra in the same way as, say, Walton or Copland did: all the energy is melodic and leaves no time for dawdlers; everything moves on relentlessly. Unlike those of Walton or Copland, though, MacMillan’s Violin Concerto seems to end without noticeable resolution.

There are brief, barely audible (intentionally), spoken elements (by Gillian de Groote) in this third movement, including a tribute to the composer’s mother, who died in 2008. Repin’s playing throughout is impressive without being ostentatious - especially in the fast passages, such as those midway through the Violin Concerto’s last movement [tr.3]. The same sense of purpose, yet respect for the music, is evident in the ensemble work from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

The Violin Concerto was commissioned jointly for Repin by the London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, the Dutch Radio 4 programme, ZaterdagMatinee and the Ensemble orchestral de Paris and Joseph Swensen, artistic director of the Théatre des Champs Élysées. MacMillan’s dedication of the work is to Repin.

The Fourth Symphony was commissioned jointly by Radio 3, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Berkeley Symphony to be first performed during the 2015 Proms with the BBC Scottish and Runnicles - to whom it is indeed dedicated. It shares with the Violin Concerto a greater preoccupation with insistence and measured adherence to drive and determination. It is bent on exposing how thematic material can consist of individual components, the aggregation of which matters less than our understanding of them for what they are. A good comparison here would be with the ways in which Bartók used instrumental colour to draw the listener in so as to illustrate quite consciously how music ‘works’.

The Fourth Symphony is in one continuous movement which - as MacMillan himself says in his notes to accompany the CD - explores ritual in music. Specifically the rituals of movement, exhortation, petition and joy. Particularly successful is the playing of the BBC Scottish in such a way as to balance the focus and excitement which such ritual may (perhaps must) evoke with the inclusion of the listener, who is unlikely to be the originator of the purpose of such ritual. Accordingly absent are rhetoric, declamation and spectacle.

This insight (on Runnicles’ part) affords the music immediacy. But - again - it’s a thoughtful forwardness which extends to and includes such qualities as almost inevitable self-reflection. Somehow this leads to sweetness. For example towards half way through the Symphony [tr.4] and pathos, of which you cannot help but be aware, but not at first why.

MacMillan’s writing - and most definitely the interpretation of Runnicles and the BBC Scottish - all but advise you to listen with as much curiosity as delight. If wistfulness were a noisy emotion, this is what it would sound like. But evoked by counsellors not reminiscent grandparents. Runnicles and his forces are not afraid of drama. But it is never used for mere effect.

The acoustic of the Albert Hall (Symphony No. 4) is of course full and resounding without evidence of the audience except for the final applause. For the Concerto the recording was more closely miked for the orchestra than the soloists(s). The brief descriptions of the two works here in the CD’s booklet shed some light on them but could have been more useful in setting them in the context of MacMillan’s growing œuvre. Enthusiasts for the composer will have no hesitation in acquiring this CD and listening repeatedly to the delights it contains. Those following more broadly the trajectories which contemporary British music is taking will find them just as satisfying. Not least because of the sympathetic and perceptive performances which they receive by one of the country’s top orchestras.

Mark Sealey

Previous review: John Quinn



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