January 17, 2014 5:39 pm

LPO/Vladimir Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall, London – review

James MacMillan’s new Viola Concerto is a genuinely popular piece of music that displays consistency and sheer beauty

Critics love to criticise the music of James MacMillan. It’s a mish-mash of styles. It often sounds as if it was composed 60 years ago. It sometimes has a blatantly commercial edge – as if market-friendliness was more important than originality and depth. All these criticisms can be levelled at the Scottish composer’s new Viola Concerto, of which Lawrence Power and the London Philharmonic Orchestra gave the first performance on Wednesday. But in this instance the criticisms don’t hold water. MacMillan’s 30-minute concerto comes across as a genuinely popular piece of music, with a consistency and sheer beauty lacking in his other recent scores.

The piece is overwhelmingly tonal, occasionally reminiscent of Bruch and Walton, and unashamedly old-fashioned in its fast-slow-fast structure. Much of the material in the opening movement pits the solo instrument’s yearning lyricism against a quartet of two violas and two cellos, creating a fragrantly intimate, introspective atmosphere that draws the listener in and finds a potent contrast in spangled percussion and keening winds.


IN Music

The dreamy slow movement plays with a sequence of sliding notes and swoony motifs that eventually, tantalisingly, expire into the ether. The finale, much of it an adrenaline-charged gallop, offers tougher textures and timbres before returning to the yearning melody of the start. Beneath its abstract classicism the music speaks of sorrow, hope, tenderness, excitement, resolve. Best of all, MacMillan understands and exploits the viola’s expressive potential, while keeping the emotions on the right side of kitsch.

There is no musician today better equipped to play it than the minstrel-like Power, who sounded properly fired up and downright inspired from first note to last. Jurowski and the LPO gave exemplary support and went on to give an account of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony that was more than a bit matter-of-fact. Jurowski never lets sentiment get in the way of objectivity, and his relentless speeds didn’t help. The slow movement, placed second, yielded some pretty moments – step forward guest principal horn David Pyatt – but the finale went round in circles, allowing the symphony’s chill edge to overwhelm its majesty and brilliance. It was all a bit micromanaged, like Dr Miracle choreographing his immaculate creation.


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