Rory Macdonald & RSNO - Thomas Wilson: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 - The Reviewer's Chair

Men who create orchestral symphonies are supposed to have names like Ludwig van Beethoven and Antonin Dvořák, not Tom Wilson, Matt Taylor and Dave Johnson. Yet the last three are not real estate agents but British composers - among the most serious symphonists of recent times. (To be fair, their full names are Matthew Taylor and David Hackbridge Johnson).

Thomas Wilson (1927-2001) won many awards for his work, and was the leading Scottish composer of the generation before James MacMillan. I'd never heard a note of his music, so was intrigued to receive this new release of two single-movement symphonies and an orchestral work: Symphony No. 3 (written in 1979), No. 4, "Passeleth Tapestry" (1988) and Carillon (1990). They are played by the excellent Royal Scottish National Orchestra on the Linn label, which is renowned for its sound quality. This disc does not disappoint in either respect. The sound is rich, full and present, while the orchestral performances under Rory Macdonald are dramatically charged, colourful and assured. (It is worth noting that earlier in his career Macdonald was an assistant to David Zinman, Iván Fischer and Antonio Pappano. It shows.)

In all three works Wilson's music has a cinematic quality. Not only in the expansive orchestration, which includes important lines for piano, but also in his easily recognisable three or four note melodic motifs. These are used throughout each piece as a thematic and harmonic basis for the many changes of mood. Wilson's harmony is tonal but without a clear key centre, which allows him to create tension. In quiet sections, he achieves a feeling of foreboding, sometimes a malevolent playfulness, and each of these pieces builds to a tense climax at some point. If this music did underscore a movie, it would be in black and white with lots of shadows. Wilson's accomplished, evocative writing makes a strong impression on first hearing.

The Reviewer's Chair
01 March 2019