This excellent coupling from brings together two distinctive scores from Sir James MacMillan, different in character yet both sharing a lack of extra-musical concerns (a major preoccupation) and drawing inspiration from historic musical sources. Echoes of Renaissance composer Robert Carver, a fellow Scot, inform the Fourth Symphony with its assimilation of his ten-voice Missa Dum sacrum mysterium (and shape a subtle and uneasy relationship between past and present), while a quartet of violas and cellos bring evocations of a viol consort in the Viola Concerto.
The Fourth Symphony (2014-15) is cast in one continuous movement and scored for a sizeable orchestra with an extensive percussion section including aluphone (aluminium bells struck with a mallet), steel drum and temple bowls. It’s an eventful work of some forty minutes, teeming with ideas and arresting contrasts, unfolding as much by strength of personality as any logical design, yet built on distinct ideas the composer calls 'rituals of movement, exhortation, petition and joy.' Ethereal celesta and glockenspiel set in motion its collage-like episodes before yielding to dense and ecstatic string writing reminiscent of Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. But rapture jostles with an overriding sense of unease in this emotional spin-dryer of a work where colours run riot and moods turn on a sixpence, clamour cedes to consolation, tumult surrenders to lamentation, their synthesis ultimately symphonic in its restless and hard won resolution of material. Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Philharmonic bring total assurance to its eclectic detail.
The Viola Concerto (2013) joins an increasing number of works MacMillan has written for players he admires. Lawrence Power is the eloquent and highly communicative soloist in a work conventionally divided into three movements (fast, slow, fast) designed to illuminate the viola’s lyrical qualities and set against a largish orchestra often used in chamber combinations with an array of tuned percussion. Whether soaring, soulful and scurrying, Power gives a compelling account and throughout is unfailingly expressive and rich toned. After two peremptory chords, the viola takes wing pursuing a freewheeling ascent above hushed strings and percussion, whimsy turning to unease in menacing brass before the viola wins out, disquiet unresolved. MacMillan’s characteristic ‘keening’ colours a romantically inclined slow movement, and exuberance dominates the propulsive Finale where shades of Bartók (or even Martinů) frame a portrait of nostalgic orientalism in which a flute impersonates a Japanese shakuhachi.
This is a significant release for which excellent sound is a bonus.