Donald Runnicles / Vadim Repin

MacMillan: Violin Concerto; Symphony No. 4

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At least outside Britain, Sir James MacMillan is best known for his sacred pieces. But he has written a good deal of instrumental music as well, some of it large in scope and unafraid of swinging for the fences (if one may be permitted a baseball idiom in this context). The Violin Concerto, written for the performer here, Vadim Repin, bears in addition a dedication to the memory of the composer's mother, Ellen. The work does not lack ambition, bringing in Scottish folk influences, a grimly Mahlerian Viennese slow movement, and, perhaps inexplicably, voices intoning the words "one, two, three, four" in German in the finale. Maybe it's a Kraftwerk tribute. The work is certainly not dull, but more coherent is the Symphony No. 4, in a single 37-minute movement that encompasses aspects of music as "rituals of movement, exhortation, petition, and joy." Although it contains a range of references to Scottish Renaissance composer Robert Carver and a large variety of orchestral sounds, the work succeeds as a single musical argument. The overall effect may bring to mind a Sibelius turned loose in the modern world. Sample the symphony, preferably at high volume on a good set of speakers. The symphony was recorded live at its Royal Albert Hall premiere, and everything is clear and indicative of real excitement. A fine introduction to MacMillan's instrumental music.

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