Chris Bye
British Music Society Journal
July 2020

Britain’s much-prized contemporary composer, Sir James MacMillan, takes a well-deserved bow for an innovative Viola Concerto, coupled on this release with his Fourth Symphony.

MacMillan upgrades the work-a-day viola from its regular orchestral role and breathes new life into a string instrument that is so often unfairly overshadowed by its oft solo-playing neighbours, the violin and cello.

MacMillan’s clever compositional technique is also capitalised on by well-lauded viola soloist, Lawrence Power, whose dazzling articulation in virtuoso passages adds a sparkle and gives this work a satisfying dimension.

Indeed, Power’s brilliance teases the very best out of this demanding work—proving beyond any doubt that it is no ‘Cinderella’ instrument. Not just one in the crowd. Every precious note of this concerto turns the viola into real manna from heaven.

The potent Symphony (2015), energetically delivered by the seasoned BBC Philharmonic, under the able stewardship of Martyn Brabbins, is further proof of MacMillan’s talent for turning the orchestra into a potent mouthpiece.

Shades of those striking rhythmic phrases from the impressionable Stravinskian sound-world distinctly hang in the air during some colourful instrumentation. There are well-augmented jocular phrases showing off Scottish folk music roots.

MacMillan’s celebrated success, based on a stimulating repertoire which, at its roots, was largely inspired by his own devout Christian religion, and by notable historic events. Now he is rapidly turning into something of a worldwide artistic legend the whole of the UK should be proud of.

The symphony is a scorching tour-de-force and boasts some wonderful towering orchestral moments, even though some purists may feel that the 40-minute one-movement structure goes in parts a touch too far.

No such qualms, however, about the succinct concerto partnering this release.