BBCSSO/Runnicles review – MacMillan premiere and the raw power of Mahler

Royal Albert Hall, London
James MacMillan’s dense and complex Fourth Symphony was conducted with affection and dignity; Mahler’s Fifth felt like being locked into someone else’s nervous breakdown

Donald Runnicles’s second Prom with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra opened with the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Fourth Symphony, written to celebrate Runnicles’s 60th birthday, which fell late last year. MacMillan describes the symphony as “essentially abstract” rather than programmatic, though it also anchors itself within traditions of Scottish sacred music by paying tribute to the Renaissance polyphonist Robert Carver, whose 10-part Missa Dum Sacrum Mysterium – MacMillan sang it while a student – is liberally quoted in the score.

Lasting around 40 minutes, the symphony is effectively a single-movement variant on traditional sonata form built round a cluster of ideas heard in succession at the outset: ritualistic timpani throbs; a fanfare-like chorale; thickening string dissonances; and spiky, aggressive rhythmic figurations from woodwind and piano. Carver’s Mass is then introduced by low solo strings, and the development weaves its way through and over it, the textures alternately clotting and clearing, the mood turning increasingly tense.

Eventually serenity is achieved in a slowly unwinding cello melody accompanied by the exquisite yet eerie sound of overtones on eastern temple bowls. At this point, the emotional trajectory feels complete. But MacMillan pushes on to a big coda, complete with a series of grandiose climaxes that feel curiously forced after all that has gone before. Densely, at times exotically scored, it was grandly played. Runnicles conducted it with great affection and dignity.

It was followed by Mahler’s Fifth, in a raw-round-the-edges performance of considerable power, with the famous Adagietto very much the still point in its eruptive world. The second movement, marked “tempestuous” in the score, was a real maelstrom that felt like being locked into someone else’s nervous breakdown. Very fine.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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