MacMillan’s style has evolved over the years and here are two of his best works!

JAMES MacMILLAN: Violin Concerto; Symphony No. 4 – Vadim Repin, v./Groote, voice/BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Donald Runnicles – Onyx Classics ONYX 4157, [Distr. by HM/PIAS], 65:24, (10/28/16) ****:

I have heard many works by Sir James MacMillan over the years, starting with his The Berserking and all of them are very creatively scored and quite interesting to listen to. It is also true that, for me, many of his early works were a bit of a ‘wild ride’ with ample dissonance and an almost paranoid or dark tone and an energy that seemed relentless at times. Much of MacMillan’s music over the years has addressed religious themes and utilized sacred text, in reflection of his devout Catholic faith and also in examining a wide range of social and political turmoil through his writing.

In recent years, MacMillan has written music with a broader appeal and a bit less message and implication behind the sound. I think the Violin Concerto comes across this way. Written for the present soloist, Vadim Repin, this concerto is a three-movement work that takes its cue from Scottish dance forms as well as some nostalgic input; the work being dedicated to the memory of his mother, Ellen. One fairly odd element is the use of a speaker in the final movement, intoning – in German – ‘One, two, three, four. My mother dances with me.’  James’ own program notes do not explain why the use of German but the introduction of the voice has a jarring quality just before the work comes to an angst-filled (including a brief but effective quote of the Dies Irae) and dramatic close. This is a very fine and attention- getting work!

MacMillan’s Symphony No. 4 is – on some level – another very personal work. Written out of homage to Robert Carver, one of Scotland’s earliest established composers, this work, according to the composer, examines “music as ritual” and uses what he considers four main ‘archetypes’ or types of ritualistic use of music: those of movement, exhortation, petition and joy.  To that end, this single extended movement work takes us through the introduction of a core melody in the trumpet and which weaves its way the through the orchestra. There are many moments in the Symphony that sound almost Renaissance in their texture; MacMillan even using pieces of a seminal Mass by Carver. At other times, the timbre and pulse of this Symphony is overtly violent, pleading and confrontational. I absolutely loved how this work is scored and orchestrated with such a wide range of delicate and ethereal instrumental combinations right aside those which offer a more full ‘assault.’ I have long felt that the use of color in a full orchestra is one of James MacMillan’s strongest assets as a composer and this is a genuinely engaging work!

All performances here are top notch. I have been a big fan of Donald Runnicles’ work as well; which I have seen many times with the San Francisco Opera. This is a tremendous recording of excellent contemporary music with Runnicles’ own orchestra on home turf. Highly recommended!

—Daniel Coombs