MACMILLAN Violin Concerto. Symphony No 4
Now approaching 60, James MacMillan is surely the most recorded of contemporary British composers and this new Onyx disc couples two of his most important recent orchestral works.
Immediately notable is that the primary elements of his Violin Concerto (2009) are enshrined in its movement titles. In ‘Dance’, conflict between energetic and lyrical ideas is mediated by the soloist then brought to a head in the hectic coda. Scottish folk music of a more relaxed nature is encountered in ‘Song’, its strident climaxes offset by passages where the soloist soars in its highest register and is joined by the percussion in some of MacMillan’s most imaginative scoring. A pity ‘Song and Dance’ falls down through striving to amalgamate these archetypes; its faster music is often contrived, with the second theme an unlikely take on Viennese schmaltz. The spoken element (in German) is redundant, leaving the finale to be unified by scintillating solo-writing which culminates in a virtuoso cadenza and is capped by the peremptory ending.
MacMillan’s concertos have often been revived but his symphonies less so. Coming after the spiritual conflict of Vigil (No 1), the intimacy and incisiveness of its successor, then the existential quest of Silence (No 3), the Fourth Symphony (2015) unfolds an overtly abstract conception whose unbroken 37-minute span centres on an intensifying juxtaposition of faster and slower music that is increasingly pervaded by allusions to Robert Carver’s motet Dum sacrum mysterium. These give focus to a work whose formal trajectory accumulates more through force of will than by subtle organisation, and this applies equally to an orchestral sound world reliant on an emotional rhetoric which too often spills into overemphasis. But then, MacMillan has always been a creative figure for whom musical understatement is rarely, if ever, a priority.
That the symphony conveys the eloquence that it does is in no small part down to the conviction of Donald Runnicles, who draws a committed response from the BBC Scottish Symphony. Vadim Repin is also admirable in the solo part of the concerto, which could well find itself a place in the modern repertoire. Immediate sound and insightful notes by the composer enhance a significant release.