Jonathan Blumhofer
The Arts Fuse, USA
May 2020

It’s been a good last hundred years or so for the viola: from William Walton and Belá Bartók to Miklós Rózsa and, now, James MacMillan, the instrument has been well served in the concerto genre. MacMillan’s 2013 Viola Concerto, out now in its debut recording and featuring dedicatee Lawrence Power in the solo part, is a magnificent addition to the repertoire.

His Concerto is, essentially, a traditional piece. Its three movements are each motivically tight, structurally familiar, and formally clear. MacMillan’s writing is imbued with its typically strong sense of dramatic shape and brims with virtuosity that never feels excessive or gratuitous. Best, as conventional as the Concerto might appear, it’s never dull.

The first movement broods darkly and soulfully. In the second, there’s a gorgeous gymnopedie-esque waltz marked by falling glissandos that are interrupted by an abrasive, almost mechanical gesture. The finale, with its robust, athletic opening and tragic central section, builds to a climax that recalls the Scottish folk music that MacMillan is so fond of drawing upon, before culminating in an ecstatic, driving coda.

Power’s command of the solo part fits like a glove. He brings a richness of tone and precision of intonation that wouldn’t be out of place in Berlioz’s Harold en Italie or Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante and applies them to MacMillan’s idiom. The results are invigorating, particularly in the dreamy slow movement and the passionate denouement of the finale.

Martyn Brabbins leads the BBC Philharmonic in a stirringly discreet account of the accompaniment. The soloist is never covered by MacMillan’s sometimes-thick scoring, and the Concerto’s most striking moments—like the viola- and cello-section dialogues with Power in the outer movements and the piercing interjections of the central one—speak with biting expressive clarity.

Brabbins and the BBCPO fill out the disc with a lucid, energetic reading of MacMillan’s Symphony No 4. Written in 2014-15, MacMillan’s Fourth evokes the sound world of the Renaissance almost as much as it calls to mind the rhythmic gestures of Stravinsky and the harmonic sound world of Ives.

Like the Concerto, the Symphony’s materials are thoroughly developed and colorfully scored. Its allusions to Scottish folk music and some prominent writing for solo viola make for an intelligent pairing with the earlier piece. Still, clocking in at around 40 minutes, the Fourth rambles a bit and overstays its welcome. Its ecstatic, radiant apotheosis, in particular, doesn’t quite fit.

That said, Brabbins’s rendition is hard to argue with and, even if the Symphony might leave a bit to be desired, it gets a great performance. Above all, so does the Concerto.

The Arts Fuse, USA