Here’s a teaser for the statistical anoraks amongst you: which was the last British symphony to be commercially recorded twice within the first five years of its existence? Any advance on Vaughan Williams No 8? If I’m correct (and I make absolutely no assumptions on that score) it speaks volumes about the stature of MacMillan’s fourth attempt at the form, which struck me as an outright masterpiece when I heard the broadcast of its premiere during the 2015 Proms season. Donald Runnicles’ account with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was taped and issued by Onyx in late 2016, a disc which John Quinn welcomed most enthusiastically. On that issue the symphony was coupled with Vadim Repin’s thrilling account of MacMillan’s Violin Concerto of 2009; here Lawrence Power is a most persuasive advocate in the premiere recording of its viola sibling.
It might be factually accurate to make use of the catch-all (yet seemingly increasingly more meaningless) descriptor ‘British’ for the purposes of statistical trivia but let’s make no bones about it. MacMillan is a Scottish composer and to my ears his music radiates the landscape and history of that specific place. I would argue his entire output exudes an essence which is far more Nordic than British; nowhere does this seem more evident than in the two works on this magnificent disc. In each piece MacMillan has harnessed his unique, by now familiar stylistic fingerprints and moulded music of optimum coherence, originality and power. Martyn Brabbins leads performances of unbridled conviction and passion from the BBC Philharmonic whilst Lawrence Power plays the concerto as though it’s been around for years. Mark my words: it will be.
After the celesta’s other-worldly opening gesture the four main ideas upon which the symphony’s entire forty-minute edifice is built present themselves in rapid succession. All are identifiable and enable the internal logic of this work to be more readily comprehensible as it proceeds. MacMillan’s characteristic keening, sighing shapes meld them together. This is rugged, confident and beautifully made music and I would argue it sounds even more accomplished in the new account than on the Runnicles disc, exciting though that live concert experience certainly is. Brabbins is quite the master when it comes to cogent expression, and the orchestra clearly has the work under its collective skin. The solo lines here emerge with diamantine clarity, seamlessly blended or contrasted in Hyperion’s magisterial production. This studio recording is certainly replete with the palpable white-knuckle-ride-thrill of the work’s premiere, reinforcing the view that this symphony is special indeed, even amongst the numerous peaks of this composer’s singular output. The string writing may be angular or rounded by turn, but the unanimity of the ensemble is jaw-dropping. Likewise the perfectly balanced brass choirs which feature in the opening ten minutes of the work. The loudest climaxes (there are many, and they are thrilling) never suggest the futility of volume for volume’s sake. There is an extended, rapid unison tutti episode at the 15:00 mark which literally takes the breath away.
Absorbed within the fabric of the symphony are regular allusions to the work of MacMillan’s Renaissance Scottish forbear Robert Carver which avail themselves ever more movingly as the symphony proceeds. The variety of colour and happening within the piece is dizzying in itself, but the wonder of the whole is its cohesion; if MacMillan’s symphonic writing has always been laced with excitement, imagination, intellect and profound self-awareness, I have never perceived these elements to have been blended with such care or to have flowed with such inevitability as they do in this work in this account. Its unexpectedly guarded denouement is a masterstroke. While I like the ambition of MacMillan’s recent successor (newly issued on Coro) its newness renders it more diffuse and inscrutable than the fourth (of course a lack of immediacy is not necessarily a bad thing so ask me again in twelve months!) In any case the orchestra have seized the moment and completely taken ownership here—they play it as though it is THEIR work. It is unlikely MacMillan buffs will be making a choice between Brabbins or Runnicles; notwithstanding the different couplings they will rightly acquire both, such is the quality and stature of his fourth symphony. Time will tell whether it proves to be the composer’s masterpiece.
The presence of the viola concerto renders the new issue even more essential. The rising figure the Lawrence Power presents at its outset (against a disorienting brass and wind cadence) superficially resembles the familiar beginning of Bruch’s G Minor Violin Concerto, but that’s surely a coincidence, although what follows does cast an oddly romantic mien, one that’s pitted against velvety Honeggerian string chords. This unsettling material dares to be simultaneously attractive, a sense reinforced by a wayward Pied Piper flute solo. At 3:20 what seems like a main theme arrives—it’s bizarre and uncannily resembles a ribald chant which pre-pandemic I would hear on a fortnightly basis sung by the Accrington Stanley FC 'Ultras' behind the goal during our home games. MacMillan’s way with this tune (it’s exchanged between soloist and orchestra) and its odd contiguity with the Bruch idea is beguiling and disturbing (one wonders if Bruch ever got to see Everton—or St Domingo’s FC as they were known at the time—during his time on Merseyside; Liverpool FC didn’t even exist at that point). The textures towards the end of the movement seem more glowing and mellow, but the notes themselves are less comforting—the shrill piccolo at the conclusion underlines this. A Bergian catastrophe opens the central panel, yielding impassioned solo writing which hints at MacMillan’s signature ‘keening’ style, and which is mirrored in the accompaniment. The musical substance oscillates between graceful music of exquisite tenderness and forceful material that’s brittle and momentarily brutal. Power elicits the music of the spheres from his instrument during this movement’s denouement—specifically those extra-terrestrial spheres inhabited by Oliver Postgate’s Clangers. The finale is like a moto perpetuo punctuated by stampede-like orchestral outbursts and thorny solos; roughly halfway there’s a delicately painted passage involving flute and harp which is truly remarkable and could surely only have been shaped by this composer’s hand.. The conclusion succinctly synthesises the concerto’s key ideas. Lawrence Power makes light of what sounds like an extremely demanding solo part. On this evidence MacMillan’s viola concerto is certainly no makeweight for the symphony. It’s masterfully made and riveting to hear. It must surely become a repertoire staple.
This is quite possibly my disc of the year. Notwithstanding Sir James MacMillan’s sensational music, the playing of both Lawrence Power and the BBC Philharmonic is beyond exceptional. To end with another teaser: Martyn Brabbins seems to have become my favourite conductor—when did he last make a duff record?