Sunday, 30 October 2016

A masterly fourth symphony shows James MacMillan at the peak of his compositional powers on a new release from Onyx Classics that is topped off with an impressive violin concerto performed by Vadim Repin with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles

Composer James MacMillan (b.1950) was born in Ayrshire, Scotland and studied at Edinburgh University before undertaking further studies with John Casken at Durham University. His music is influenced by both his Catholic faith and Scottish folk music. His compositions include opera and music theatre, orchestral, chamber, piano and sacred choral works.  

Of his orchestral works he has now written four symphonies, the last of which was premiered at last year’s BBC Proms by Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

That premiere performance of Symphony No. 4 was recorded by the BBC and is now released by Onyx Classics coupled with a premiere studio recording of MacMillan’s Violin Concerto played by its dedicatee, Vadim Repin  with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra  under Donald Runnicles

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MacMillan’s Violin Concerto (2009) was written for violinist Vadim Repin and co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, the Zaterdagmatinee (Amsterdam), the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. The world première was given by Repin and the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev at the Barbican Centre on 12 May 2010.

In three movements, a series of incisive orchestral phrases open I. Dance, quickly joined by a frantic solo line as the music dances quickly forward through a longer melodic passage for the soloist. The orchestra soon drives ahead, the soloist adding some terrific, vibrant textures. There are more moments of introspection in the orchestra over which the soloist wistfully adds the theme before moving through passages of fast moving, virtuosic playing from the soloist, often rising high until weighty incisive phrases from the orchestra arrive. The soloist continues over a translucent orchestral background finding the most wonderful textures and colours, phenomenally well payed by Repin. Soon percussion and orchestra bring further strident chords before the violin leads to the coda that arrives on orchestral chords   

It is an oboe that brings the lovely melody over a gentle orchestral layer in the opening of II. Song around which other woodwind weave. The soloist soon enters with the most lovely little decorations, developing a quite lovely melody with fine harmonies and textures. The music develops through some more intense passages that reveal a darker element. Repin provides the most wonderful textures as he takes the solo part over an angry orchestral accompaniment. Midway there is a lovely passage where the soloist introduces a folksy theme over delicate, translucent orchestral accompaniment with the soloist finding so many colours and textures. The music soon re-discovers its intense, angry feel, brass sound out over the dramatic orchestra as the music arrives at a climax but the soloist brings back a poetic calm revealing the most lovely textures. Later a simple tune for piccolo arrives over a delicate orchestra to which the solo violin adds really lovely little decorations before tailing off to conclude this quite exquisite movement. 

III. Song and Dance opens with rhythmic vocal chanting of words ‘ Eins, zwei, drei, vier: Meine Mutter tanz mit mir’ (One, two, three, four: My mother is dancing with me) over a marching, hushed orchestral layer. The soloist joins as the orchestra rises and expands, weaving around the orchestral phrases. Again Repin is quite superb. The orchestra rises dramatically before the soloist and orchestra speed ahead, dancing around each other through a shimmering passage and into a crashing dramatic passage underlined by the sound of a piano. Soon the music suddenly finds a flowing melody, the soloist flowing around freely before brass join. The music seems poised between drama and a lighter quality. Pounding orchestral rhythms appear for both orchestra and soloist bringing a terrific virtuosity. Later the plainchant Dies Irae can be heard through the texture before all fall to a hush as a single voice speaks.  There is a further crashing outburst before the soloist brings a passionate cadenza that takes us through some stunningly played moments with finely done harmonics and dissonances.  The orchestra rejoins dramatically and with the soloist hammer the music forward to a decisive coda.  

This is an impressive, quite wonderful concerto played absolutely brilliantly here.

I managed to hear the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Symphony No. 4 (2014/15) at the 2015 Proms. This world premiere live recording of the event confirms just what a tremendous performance Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave.

The symphony opens with a hushed delicate, luminescent orchestra out of which brass bring a theme over a plodding bass layer. Textures broaden with a piano adding a rhythmic line, slowly creating some wonderful textures and ideas. The strings slowly rise in the background, finding a terrific layering of rhythms and ideas, a myriad of colours, textures and rhythms.  The strings bring a longer melodic, falling idea soon developing a swirl of textures, slowly rising in energy in this brilliant passage that is occasionally reminiscence of Tippett’s earlier string writing. Drum strokes suddenly herald a more rhythmic, forward pushing idea that brings with it dramatic clashes.

The music slowly quietens to a gentler section that is intruded into by the piano and various instrumental interruptions, all the while a solo violin weaves through the varying textures. There is an almost Ivesian overlay of disparate tunes as though in a dream. The brass rise out of the mixed textures, woodwind cry out and tubular bells sound. The brass appear again bringing a fanfare of ideas before drums beat a forward driving rhythm with the strings scurrying around behind. The music increases in energy as the piano brings rapid chords. The strings take the music into a rather quixotic passage before the orchestra strides confidently ahead with pounding drums. There is a rhythmic idea for strings before brass and drums thunder ahead reaching a terrific plateau for brass and strings, melodic and epic in feel. There is a passage of lovely string textures over the most wonderful orchestral tapestry of sound, again with a dreamlike quality.

Midway the music falls to a halt before rising with light rhythmic drums to drive ahead, rising to a peak on a gong stroke. The celeste quietly plays a theme around which the orchestra gently add texture. The brass gently sound a motif, that has a Scottish snap, over an orchestral layer that slowly and deliberately heaves itself forward. The music rises and quickly scurries forward. A tune appears in the cellos, surely the allusion to the Scottish composer, Robert Carver’s (c.1485 – c.1570) ten voice mass, Dum Sacrum mysterium that the composer tells us about. It adds a wonderfully nostalgic feel that fits perfectly, especially as it swirls into modern harmonies and textures.

The music moves into a sonorous string passage on the theme though there are further dramatic outbursts. In this wonderful, immensely satisfying section the melody feels as though it has been sought throughout the whole work. As the music continues there are moments of great beauty with MacMillan adding subtle colour with percussion. Eventually the brass solemnly join and the orchestra rises through some swirling passages before falling to drum and percussion clashes that speed up with brass to push ahead through glittering passages to a stunning coda that slowly fades.

The applause of the enthusiastic Prom audience is kept at the end. 

This is a masterly symphony showing James MacMillan at the peak of his compositional powers. Both the studio and live recording are superb and there are insightful booklet notes from the composer.

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