James MacMillan has written five symphonies to date (a recording of his Fifth has just been released by Britten Sinfonia and The Sixteen via CORO); his Fourth was composed during 2014 and 2015 for that year’s BBC Proms. A live recording of the premiere performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Donald Runnicles is available through Onyx, but this is the first studio version, recorded by the BBC Philharmonic under Martyn Brabbins in Salford.
MacMillan’s Fourth is notable for its curious use of colour and texture: the work is scored for an enlarged orchestra, including an array of additional woodwind, percussion and keyboard instruments. The single-movement, 40-minute symphony swirls into being, gradually bringing seemingly disparate sounds together until the music gathers a more ominous energy. The use of steel drums and, much later, singing bowls—recently popularised through Western appropriations of Buddhist meditation—is disconcerting; the sound is subsequently contextualised and the anarchic aspects are consumed by the ceremonial ones.
In some ways, the Viola Concerto is similar in character and style to the Fourth Symphony and the pairing works well here. Soloist Lawrence Power, the work’s dedicatee, is sublime—there are frequent occasions when the orchestral texture is pared down to just a handful of instruments, ensuring that the viola melody (at once gorgeous and gruff) is clearly visible. When it appears, the full ensemble brings a few surprises, such as the trombone accents and flute flutter-tonguing in the third movement, hallmarks of MacMillan’s expert understanding of the orchestral palette.