Classical review: BBC Proms, London

James MacMillan's new symphony, premiered at the Proms by the BBC SSO under Donald Runnicles, top, had 'enormous personality at its core'
James MacMillan's new symphony, premiered at the Proms by the BBC SSO under Donald Runnicles, top, had 'enormous personality at its core'
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IN THE second of its BBC Proms concerts this week, the BBC SSO presented the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Fourth Symphony. It’s 12 years since MacMillan wrote his Third Symphony – also premiered at the Proms – and the journey undertaken since by the recently knighted composer, now churning out significant works at a rate of knots with the seamless facility of a master in his maturity, is manifest in this compelling new symphony.

Prom 23: Verdi – Requiem

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Prom 24: Sir James Macmillan & Mahler

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Royal Albert Hall

It is, he claims, a study in the abstract, which is true to a large and palpable extent. Structural logic is its mainstay, from the systematic layout of tempi changes and tonal centres, to the discursive and persuasive juxtaposition of the key musical ideas. As such, the outbursts of spiritual euphoria we associate with MacMillan’s music, are tantalisingly suppressed by his tendency to counter the ecstatic with challenging, often dark, undercurrents.

But while he may eschew the notion of a programme governing this 40-minute, single-movement symphony, there is enormous personality at its core, which this intense, hi-fibre performance under dedicatee Donald Runnicles amply demonstrated. It is, as ever with MacMillan, a spiritual journey, in this instance governed by “ritual” in its various guises – “rituals of movement, exhortation, petition and joy”.

The musical ingredients are unmistakably his: plaintive melodies sculpted from the world of Gregorian chant, set against chattering counterpoints, densely aromatic string clusters, resplendent chorales and the mystical backdrop of quotations from Scots Renaissance composer Robert Carver’s Missa Dum Sacrum Mysterium, played by back desk violas and cellos like a ghostly consort of viols.

It was stimulating preparation for the SSO’s second-half performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, an intoxicating cocktail of individual virtuosity (Mark O’Keefe’s needle-sharp trumpet call and Richard Watkins’ jaw-dropping horn playing) and the collective intensity of the entire orchestra.

The previous night, a performance of the Verdi Requiem, also under Runnicles and featuring his super-charged Deutches Oper Chorus, had its own distinctive merits. To hear a powerhouse choir sing this essentially operatic score was thrilling – the welter of the Dies Irae, the whispered magic of the opening Requiem, the energetic detail of the fugues, multiplied in effect.

It was only slightly let down by the unevenness of the solo quartet, Scots mezzo Karen Cargill and soprano Angela Meade more assured than the male duo, and the occasional lapse in total coordination of the large forces.

Seen on 03.08.15