Thursday 22 December 2016

Live buzz: James MacMillan's Symphony No. 4 and Violin Concerto

Macmillan Violin Concerto
James MacMillan Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 4; Vadim Repin, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles; Onyx
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 18 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Two substantial symphonic works in terrific performances

This new disc on Onyx (in association with BBC Radio 3) from Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra includes two substantial symphonic works by James MacMillan, the Violin Concerto (with violinist Vadim Repin, to whom the concerto is dedicated), and Symphony No. 4 (dedicated to Donald Runnicles).

The booklet information on the concerto is slightly frustrating, there is an admirable explanatory note from MacMillan, and details of the original commission, but no dates. So we must resort to Google to discover the work was premiered in 2010 by Vadim Repin, the London Symphony Orchestra and Valery Gergiev. [Whilst I am in grouchy mood, it would have been nice if someone had spotted that the CD booklet has added 9 years to James MacMillan's age].

The Violin Concerto is in three movements, 'Dance', 'Song' and 'Song and Dance'. 'Dance' opens with rhythmic elements in the orchestra and a high energy violin part. There are many moments of pause, but this feeling of energy continues through the movement. MacMillan achieves a sense of distance between soloist and orchestra, not so much physical as conceptual, indicated by the way the high violin part floats over the lower instrumental writing. Overall, there is a sense of dialogue, one leading the other on. I have to confess that it was only after reading James MacMillan's note that I realised that one of the episodes was a Scottish reel.

'Song' has the violin floating an intense solo line over the darker, more intense and often veiled orchestra. The movement gets powerfully intense [the third time I have used the word in this paragraph] with a sense of the soloist and orchestra wrestling with a problem. There are episodes where we relax, including a lovely transparent texture with violin line full of harmonics as MacMillan gives us hazy reminiscences of tunes from childhood.

In the final movement the two elements combine, the physical energy of 'Dance' and the singing line of 'Song'. Again the violin often floats over the orchestra, but sometimes the orchestra fights back letting all hell break loose. There are more relaxed sections, and moments in varyingly different styles. You sense a lot happening and feel there might be an underlying narrative. After an extended cadenza-ish moment the orchestra ultimately overwhelms the violin, though Vadim Repin put up a good fight.

Vadim Repin gives a terrific performance, he has clearly lived with the work since the premiere and and MacMillan's writing suits Repin's elegant sense of line. This is not a showy concerto, in the sense of dazzling bravura for its own sake, but MacMillan does not make life easy for his soloist either, and the performance from Repin is fearless, with no sense of the difficulties inherent in the violin part; Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra make superb partners in crime.

James MacMillan's Symphony No. 4 was premiered in 2016 by Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and we hear a recording of the premiere. And terrific it is too. Unlike previous MacMillan symphonies there is no underlying poetic imagery or literary references. Instead he defines it by a fascination with music of ritual, using four different elements (defined as rituals of movement, exhortation, petition and joy).

The result, running for 37 minutes, is a terrific piece where there is a constant sense of movement, progression forwards, with a constant feeling of multiple layers as MacMillan uses his various elements separately and simultaneously. There were moments when Michael Tippett's poly-rhythms came to mind, but overall this is definitely James MacMillan. Running also in the background are hints of another music, memories really, and reading MacMillan's booklet note we find he has woven music by Robert Carver into the texture. The orchestration moves between the magical and the noisy.

Frankly I cannot wait to hear it live.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Donald Runnicles give a terrific performance and whilst I imagine there was patching, there is no sense of first night nerves, just a terrific buzz.

James MacMillan (born 1959) - Violin Concerto
James MacMillan - Symphony No. 4
Vadim Repin (violin)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles
Recorded Royal Albert Hall, 3 August 2015 (Symphony no. 4, world premiere), City Halls Glasgow 6 March 2016 (Violin Concerto)
ONYX 4157 1CD
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