John Quinn
MusicWeb International
June 2020

Just recently, I reviewed the first recording of Sir James MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony, ‘Le grand Inconnu’. That is a choral symphony with a definite extra-musical theme. By contrast, his Fourth Symphony eschews extra-musical links; one might regard it as ‘absolute music’. It says something about MacMillan’s stature that even though that the work is only five years old, this is its second recording: the first recording, which I reviewed in 2016, preserved the world premiere, which was given at the 2015 BBC Proms by Donald Runnicles, the dedicatee of the score, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

The symphony, which is one continuous span, is an enthralling work. It’s been an interesting exercise to compare and contrast the two recordings. MacMillan has been extremely well served by both performances and if I express a preference for one over the other in any respect that does not imply that one recording is ‘better’ than another. On balance, I think that the Hyperion sound has the edge over the Onyx issue, though that also benefits from very good sound. The Onyx recording derived from the BBC broadcast of the premiere and, by comparison with the Hyperion, the orchestra is more closely recorded. That has advantages in that there’s greater clarity of inner detail at times. However, the mysterious start of the work is one instance where I think the slightly more distanced Hyperion sound imparts a bit more magic. And though the Onyx sound is a bit closer and has plenty of impact, I should hasten to say that the Hyperion sound is not lacking in that department. I feel that there’s more depth and range to the Hyperion recording and, overall, I believe it gives a more satisfying presentation of MacMillan’s scoring.

That scoring is wonderfully inventive and interesting. A large orchestra is used, including a sizeable array of percussion, but although there are some potent climaxes what impresses me is the subtlety of MacMillan’s orchestration. Often the music is subdued but you’ll hear little flickers of orchestral colouring which constantly pique one’s interest.

One feature of MacMillan’s output is how often he reaches back to music of the past, paying homage to it and at the same time using it as a creative springboard. That’s especially true in some of his vocal music where the Scottish Renaissance composer, Robert Carver (ca 1484 – ca 1568) is a particular inspiration. Carver’s beneficent shadow hovers over the Fourth Symphony, with references to his 10-part Missa Dum sacrum mysterium occurring at intervals. What I might call the ‘Carver Effect’ informs passages of archaic-sounding music. Often this music is heard on the strings and there are times, such as at 6:55, where MacMillan’s music is reminiscent of a consort of viols. On other occasions the archaic material is given to members of the brass section, in which guise it sounds stately. One result of the use of this archaic material, often in the background, is that MacMillan can create the impression of slow-moving music even when the rest of the orchestra is playing at a quick speed. By dovetailing the archaic music with material that is decidedly of the 21st century MacMillan can bring together the old and the new—his musical heritage and his modernism—in a provocative yet satisfying synthesis. One passage that is worthy of note in this connection begins at 23:46 where we hear what sounds uncannily like a consort of viols, their sound reaching out across the centuries. At this point virtually all the rest of the orchestra is silent until gradually the percussion section discreetly joins in, paving the way for an extended lyrical and mainly hushed episode for the strings; this contains lovely writing for the strings, especially the cellos (25:20 - 31:03). I love the way the symphony closes. After a long passage of energetic writing a full-blooded climax is attained. That gives way (39:07) to a fiesta of percussion before a final, warm chord for the full ensemble.

The symphony is so full of interest and incident that other listeners are bound to find in it things which I haven’t highlighted in either this review or in my appraisal of the Runnicles recording. The Runnicles performance has a shorter running time that the Brabbins; the world premiere lasted 37:13. I think the prime differences come in the latter stages of the score. I believe that Brabbins is a bit more expansive in his treatment of the lyrical episode beginning at 25:20; also, Runnicles seems a little swifter in his traversal of the last few minutes of the symphony. But such differences matter not; both performances are compelling and highly successful. However, if you already have the Runnicles recording I would urge you not to pass this Brabbins performance by; it’s well worth while having two contrasting and fine performances of this compelling symphony in your collection.

In any event, no MacMillan admirer will want to miss the opportunity to hear the Viola Concerto in what I’m sure is its first recording. (Runnicles offers the Violin Concerto (2009), also in a first recording, I believe.) The Viola Concerto was written for Lawrence Power and it’s cast in three movements. Once again, MacMillan uses a large orchestra but he’s extremely cunning in his scoring, reserving the full ensemble for passages where the soloist is silent and using smaller forces to accompany the solo viola; in this way, the soloist is never drowned.

Paul Conway’s notes provide an excellent guide to both works but I was slightly thrown when I first listened to the concerto. He says that the first movement opens with a ‘massive cadence’ and I was expecting an orchestral outcry. In fact, the cadence is massive in the sense of being extended and imposing but the dynamic is quite restrained. The solo instrument emerges pensively as the cadence dies away. Eventually, the music begins to accelerate but even when it does MacMillan’s writing ensures that the viola continues to sing. At 2:57 little figures on oboe and cor anglais herald more vigorous music which involves the soloist in passagework, but even here the cantabile quality of the viola is not banished from sight. There’s a pause in the energetic writing at 7:36 when the soloist begins to muse, accompanied by two violas and two cellos. As Paul Conway observes, at times the effect is reminiscent of a viol consort, though not, to my ears, quite so markedly as in the symphony. In due course, the dusky-hued sound of the soloist and his four acolytes is enriched by the addition of harp and high tuned percussion. At the very end of the movement we hear the opening cadence again, but this time underneath it the timpanist taps out a reminder of the vigorous second subject.

The second movement opens with what Paul Conway aptly describes as a ‘primal cry’ on full orchestra. The powerful gesture is soon dispelled by the start of an extended and subdued solo for the keening viola, mainly accompanied by hushed strings. At two further junctures (5:00 and 7:42) the music is disrupted by memories of the ‘primal cry’ but for the most part this movement is quiet but intense, and it is suffused with a melancholy beauty. At the very end the music seems simply to vanish into the ether. Much of the finale is, in Mr Conway’s words, ‘light-hearted and fleetfooted’ and the soloist has plenty of virtuoso opportunities. When the soloist is not playing the listener is entertained by some boisterous writing for the trombones and, in complete contrast, some high jinks for piccolo and flutes at the top of their compass. Mid-movement there’s a slow section (5:16 - 8:50) which begins with a flute solo inspired by the Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute). The flute, delicately partnered by harp, is soon joined by the husky tone of the viola which spins a melancholy song. As the solo becomes more impassioned the ‘viol’ quartet from the first movement returns to lend support. The high energy music reappears seamlessly from this reflective interlude and amid more virtuosity from the soloist, the concerto ends emphatically and positively.

I’d not heard the Viola Concerto before receiving this disc but I enjoyed it very much. Lawrence Power is a superb soloist and his partnership with the BBC Phil and Martyn Brabbins is terrific.

The engineering for this disc was in the hands of Stephen Rinker; he’s done an excellent job, presenting the performances in truthful, clear and dynamic sound. The expert notes by Paul Conway give listeners a clear and perceptive guide to the music.

Fine performances of two notable scores by James MacMillan make this CD a compelling proposition.