William Hedley
MusicWeb International
August 2020

Here are two recent works by Sir James MacMillan in outstanding performances. The quality of the recording is well up to the standards we expect from Hyperion and the disc boasts a first-rate insert note by Paul Conway. No MacMillan admirer, nor any listener interested in contemporary music of the highest possible quality, will want to miss this.

The Viola Concerto opens with an orchestral cadence that transports us to realms not so very distant from Holst’s ‘Saturn’, to be followed by a long soloist-led passage that sets a mood of mysterious disquiet. A second idea, faster and more rhythmic, is introduced by the woodwind. An interesting feature of the orchestral writing here is the introduction of four extra string soloists, two from the viola section and two from the cellos. Otherwise, the composer’s skill ensures that the solo instrument is never obscured. The Saturn-like chords return to close the movement.

The second movement follows an ABABAB pattern, where A is a highly dissonant and dramatic gesture featuring brass and percussion and B a passage of great lyrical beauty. The slithers and slides that characterise the soloist’s melody threaten, as the first B section closes, to overwhelm the rest of the material. The music comes very close to romanticism in the second B section, but a disturbing, high frequency ticking brings in the third and last A section. This is very unsettling music indeed, and we are relieved when it subsides once more into glissandi that lead to a calm, if equivocal, close, disappearing into stratospheric twittering.

The finale opens with moto perpetuo writing for the soloist accompanied by, amongst other things, some very raucous trombones! There then follows the nearest thing you will hear in this work to a cadenza, explosive string chords alongside. This is all very high-energy, and one wonders for how long the players—not to mention the listener!—can cope. Respite is at hand with a flute solo in oriental mood and with a prominent harp. There are some extremely beautiful sounds in this passage! Paul Conway uses words like ‘sparkling’ and ‘playful’ to describe this music. I can see what he means, but I confess to hearing grim determination rather than sparkle. This is especially the case when the soloist, in a particularly uncompromising passage, executes rapid figuration over slow-moving music in the brass, before becoming completely demented, almost losing it, just before the dramatic close.

This is a work that teems with invention—one striking idea follows another. Lawrence Power, for whom the work was written, plays with astonishing mastery and conviction. The work requires him to be very forceful and this he does not shirk. No shrinking violet, this particular viola.

If one can describe the Viola Concerto as teeming with invention, the phrase must be applied with even more force to the Fourth Symphony. It opens quietly with tolling, pulsing bells. The polyphonic string passage that follows puts me in mind of the more overwrought passages in Strauss’s Metamorphosen; the idiom is, of course, quite different. A short but violent storm follows, only to be interrupted by the first of several passages in which MacMillan pays homage to the sixteenth-century Scottish composer, Robert Carver. This archaic reference, for solo strings, is accompanied—I wrote the word ‘corrupted’ in my listening notes!—by unrelated music from other sections of the orchestra, including steel drums. Whistles then pipe the listener on board, like an admiral. All this takes place within the first ten minutes! From that point onwards the composer presents us with a never-ending, bewildering series of apparently unrelated musical ideas, each one as striking as the next. With repeated listening, however, one begins to hear the links between the different units of thematic material, but even before that level of understanding is possible the listener is so gripped by the composer’s control as to be carried along, uncomplaining. The orchestral writing is witness not only to the astounding fertility of MacMillan’s aural imagination, but also to his dramatic skill. The listener’s attention does not, cannot, flag, and the end, when it comes—though it is not quite the ending we are led to expect—is deeply satisfying.

It is a sign of MacMillan’s standing in the contemporary music world that this is the second recording of the symphony. The first features the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles, and is a recording of the work’s premiere in London’s Royal Albert Hall in August, 2015. I have not heard that performance, but it has received very appreciative reviews. It might well be the equal, but I cannot believe it to be superior to this one from Brabbins and the BBC Philharmonic: every section of the orchestra dazzles throughout what sounds like an extraordinarily challenging work.