On Record – Michael Collins, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Rumon Gamba – Arnold: Clarinet Concerto no.1, Philharmonic Concerto etc (Chandos)

Arnold
Commonwealth Christmas Overture Op.64 (1957)
Clarinet Concerto no.1 Op.20 (1948)
Divertimento no.2 Op.24 / Op.75 (1950)
Larch Trees Op.3 (1943)
Philharmonic Concerto Op.120 (1976)
The Padstow Lifeboat Op.94a (arranged for orchestra by Philip Lane)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Rumon Gamba

Chandos CHAN20152 [68’50″’]
Producers Brian Pidgeon and Mike George Engineers Stephen Rinker, Richard Hannaford and John Cole
Recorded 5 & 6 December 2019, 29 July at MediaCity UK, Salford

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This collection of six pieces from Sir Malcolm Arnold’s composing career stretches from one of his first published pieces, Larch Trees, to one of his last, the Philharmonic Concerto. Both were written for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, for whom he played trumpet from 1941 until 1948, and with whom he maintained a close association as a composer.

In between these pieces Chandos have chosen a satisfying mix of styles to reveal Arnold as a multi-faceted composer, not just the humourous one of which we hear most. That side of his writing is happily celebrated through The Padstow Lifeboat and the Divertimento no.2 for orchestra reveals the happiness he found through writing for children and young people, being young at heart himself.

The Commonwealth Christmas Overture finds Arnold in commission mode, called upon to write the music for Royal Prologue: Crown and Commonwealth, a programme narrated by Sir Laurence Oliver to preface the 25th Christmas speech by a ruling monarch. Completing the collection is the first of many concertos from Arnold’s pen, and the first of two for clarinet.

What’s the music like?

Chandos have already presented us with a good deal of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s music, and this is further enhanced by a programme giving us first recordings and revealing each side of the composer’s personality.

The Commonwealth Christmas Overture gets proceedings off to a suitably ceremonial start, with plenty of bluster and high jinks, all buoyed by colourful percussion. The influence of William Walton is immediately evident, for the main theme has more than a little in common with his own ceremonial march Crown Imperial, but Arnold goes on to develop it in his own inimitable way.

The Clarinet Concerto is a compact piece, deft and slightly bluesy in the outer movements but pausing for meaningful reflection in the Andante, the emotional centre of the work.

The Second Divertimento, long thought lost, is a fun piece where a lot happens in nine minutes! Using a traditional-sounding structure, Arnold has a lot of fun with the bracing Fanfare, atmospheric Nocturne and grand Chaconne, harnessing the power of the large orchestra.

The two pieces for the London Philharmonic are next, and are vividly contrasting pieces of work. Larch Trees is an evocative musical sketch, reminiscent of Moeran in the way it pans out over the rugged terrain of northern England, while also confiding intimately in its listeners through the woodwind. The Philharmonic Concerto is more obviously noisy and confrontational, this late work utilising the dissonance which will be noted by those familiar with Arnold’s later symphonies. This is not comfortable music but it is brilliantly written, challenging the orchestra to throw off their shackles. The probing violin lines of the Aria offer a chance for deeper reflection.

Finally The Padstow Lifeboat, one of Arnold’s brass band treasures, with its persistent ‘wrong note’ which warns all shipping. It makes for the ideal sign-off.

Does it all work?

Yes, and wonderfully so. Rumon Gamba has enjoyed a long and fruitful association with Arnold’s music and comes up trumps here, leading the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in some characterful and personal accounts. Arnold could hardly wish for better advocacy and understanding, the conductor charting his youthful prowess in Larch Trees, whose softer contours benefit from excellent recording by the Chandos engineers.

The Clarinet Concerto no.1 is brilliantly played by Michael Collins, negotiating the wide leaps of the solo part with aplomb, while responding with grace in the soulful slower sections. The strings of the BBC Philharmonic exploit the depths of the darker slow movement, its temperature appreciably colder by the end.

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. This is an anthology that will appeal to seasoned Arnold listeners, for its mix of the familiar and a curio or two, while it is also the ideal place for those new to the composer. If you are after some music to combat the onset of January, you have come to the right place!

Listen

Buy

For more information and purchasing options on this release, visit the Chandos website

BBC Proms #25 – Carolina Eyck, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds: Kalevi Aho Theremin Concerto, Saariaho & Shostakovich

Prom 25 – Carolina Eyck (theremin), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds

Aho Eight Seasons (Concerto for Theremin & Chamber Orchestra) (2011) (London premiere)
Saariaho Vista (2019) (Proms premiere)
Shostakovich Symphony no.15 in A major Op.141 (1971)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Thursday 4 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

John Storgårds has given some memorable Proms with the BBC Philharmonic in the decade since he became this orchestra’s guest conductor, and tonight was no exception for featuring a theremin concerto by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Its title Eight Seasons should be taken advisedly – the eight continuous sections encompassing a period from autumn to spring, as is reflected in the mostly restrained yet constantly changing textures which define a progression from the richness of Harvest to Midnight Sun with its serenity informed by new potential.

An instrument as fascinating to watch being played as it is to hear, the theremin has become the victim of its own ubiquity as an enhancer of atmosphere in film-scores and for musicians from Brian Wilson to Jonny Greenwood. Carolina Eyck was a dedicated exponent (evident in her encore-demonstration) – not least in the latter stages when her vocalise proved an enticing extension of her instrumental prowess, and the myriad timbral shifts more than compensated for the intermittent blandness of Aho’s acutely fastidious if not consistently involving music.

The layout of this piece (wind quintet and percussion alongside reduced strings) necessitated an early interval to prepare for those relatively lavish forces of Vista, Kaija Saariaho’s latest return to the orchestra and inspired by traversing the Californian coast from Los Angeles to San Diego. This is embodied over two cumulative movements – the expectancy of Horizons duly fulfilled with the mounting activity of Targets which itself subsides into an intensified recollection of the opening, now sounding as expansive as that ‘vista’ envisaged by the title.

Music so complex needs a sure hand to maintain its focus, the BBC Philharmonic responding with alacrity to Storgård’s attentive direction while he steered a convincing trajectory through what is likely Saariaho’s finest large-scale work for years – the intricacy and translucency of her writing having a panache which ensured this was manifestly a showpiece with substance. In particular, the sense of ideas being tentatively anticipated then vividly recalled added much to the evocative quality of music as formally substantial as it sounded expressively involving.

From recent Finnish orchestral works to Shostakovich’s last and most equivocal symphony is a fair step aesthetically, but Storgårds ensured the succession was a meaningful one. If it did not evince the ultimate in ominous irony, those laughs elicited from the opening movement’s stealthy activity and allusive inanity were for real – as, more regrettably, were those hesitant coughs denoting uneasy response to the slow movement’s emotional intensity as heightened by its sparseness of gesture, while not forgetting an eloquent response by cellist Peter Dixon.

Nor was the percussion found wanting in its almost concertante role, to the fore in a scherzo where the whimsical and sardonic found an unlikely accord. From its sombre initial gestures, Storgårds then had the measure of a finale whose central passacaglia built toward a powerful climax, and while tension dropped with the resumption of earlier ideas, the spectral transition into the coda was judiciously handled with the latter mesmeric in its deft profundity. Should the BBC Philharmonic need a new chief conductor, Storgårds might be worth approaching.

For more information, click on the names of composers Kalevi Aho and Kaija Saariaho – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Carolina Eyck, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

BBC Proms #6 – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis: Vaughan Williams & Tippett Fourth Symphonies

Prom 6 – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Vaughan Williams Symphony no.4 in F minor (1931-4)
Tippett Symphony no.4 (1976-7)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Tuesday 19 July 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Whether or not the Fourth Symphonies by Vaughan Williams and Tippett had previously been scheduled together, they made for a striking and provocative programme such as was its own justification. Omer Meir Wellber clearly thought so when this concert was planned and, even though indisposition had led to withdrawing from this year’s Proms, the presence of Sir Andrew Davis on the podium could hardly have been more conducive to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra giving performances of the interpretive insight and technical conviction as were evident this evening.

Admittedly the Albert Hall’s opulent acoustic is never the best setting for VW4, the visceral impact of whose opening was inevitably diluted. Allowing for rather more expressive leeway than he might otherwise have done, Davis paced this explosive movement securely with just a slightly listless take on its coda detracting from the whole. The Andante was the highlight here – its fatalistic course exuding gravitas but never dragging, with the tritonal plangency of its main climaxes palpably in evidence and pathos of its final bars enhanced by an affecting contribution from flautist Alex Jakeman. This acoustic may have obscured something of the Scherzo’s contrapuntal ingenuity but not its sardonic humour or, in the trio, didactic coyness. The stealthy transition into the Finale could have had even greater cumulative focus, but what followed had all the requisite impetus – its central interlude raptly delineated, then the drama of its ‘epilogo fugato’ conveying increasing velocity through to the starkly inevitable return of the opening gesture and what is the most unequivocal four-letter ending of any symphony.

Interesting to recall the temporal distance between these pieces is now less than that between the Tippett and the present. Enthusiastically received at its Chicago premiere and one among a handful of his works still revived following his death, Tippett’s Fourth Symphony evinces  a ‘birth to death’ trajectory that differs – crucially so – from its assumed model of Sibelius’s Seventh in not being a cumulative design; its climax being rather the kinetic developmental paragraph at its centre and from where the piece fans out, in a sequence of evolving episodes, back to the launching of its introduction and onward to the passing of its coda. Although he may have directed performances of greater tautness, Davis here secured a persuasive balance between unity and diversity – bringing a metaphysical poise to its ‘slow movement’ then a deft whimsicality to its ‘scherzo’, whose respective qualities underlined the confrontational drama elsewhere. Lavish writing for brass and percussion helps makes this Tippett’s most virtuosic such statement, in which the BBC Philharmonic was rarely to be found wanting.

A less successful component of this reading was the latest attempt to represent the ‘breathing effect’ specified by the score, in which the real-time voice of CJ Neale seemed hardly more successful than those attempts of wind machine, sampler et al to realize Tippett’s speculative imagery. No matter – any such overreaching was part and parcel of this composer’s inherent ambition; an ambition, moreover, which his present-day successors would do well to emulate. Almost a century and half-century on, both these works pose challenges constantly to be met.

In concert – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra & Jac van Steen – David Matthews Symphony no.10 world premiere, Schubert & Brahms

jac-van-steen

Brahms Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor Op.13 (1854-8)
Schubert
Overture to Rosamunde D797 (1820)
David Matthews
Symphony no.10 Op.157 (2020-21) [World premiere]

Stephen Hough (piano, below), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Jac van Steen (above)

MediaCity UK, Salford Quays
Friday 20 May 2022, 3pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A substantial programme was the order of the day for this afternoon’s studio concert from the BBC Philharmonic with Jac van Steen, given at the orchestra’s regular base in MediaCityUK and that featured a first performance anywhere for the Tenth Symphony by David Matthews.

Whereas his previous symphony was written for relatively modest dimensions, the Tenth marks a return to larger forces: triple woodwind (with doublings), four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba and four percussionists alongside timpani, celesta, piano, harp, and strings. It also finds Matthews (above) retackling the one-movement format that dominated his earlier symphonies, allied to a subtle process of developing variation such as ensures unity across a varied and eventful discourse. Not least when that massive opening chord sets out a long-range tonal and harmonic trajectory for this work overall, and to which a pensive (offstage) cor anglais solo then intensifying string fugato provide both continuation and contrast by anticipating the types of expression and motion as variously come to the fore.

Distinctive in themselves yet drawn into a tensile and cohesive entity, the constituent sections take in a wistful intermezzo then an agile scherzo on the way to a central culmination whose increasingly explosive energy likely marks a point of greatest engagement with that opening chord. The music duly heads into a slower episode of sustained emotional raptness, elements heard earlier gradually being recalled through an unforced while never discursive process of reprise towards a coda whose ending seems the more conclusive for its poised equivocation. An absorbing and often gripping exploration of symphonic tenets such as Matthews has long pursued, persuasively realized by the BBCPO and van Steen – whose support of the composer – having already recorded the Second, Sixth and Eighth Symphonies – hardly needs restating.

Before the interval, Stephen Hough (above) was soloist in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto – a piece he has given many times (not least a memorable reading at London’s Royal Festival Hall in the early 1990s, Andrew Davis also giving a seismic account of the Symphony by the late Hugh Wood). There was emotional breadth aplenty in the initial Maestoso, but also latest energy as came to the fore in a combative development and tempestuous coda. Nor was the symphonic aspect underplayed in what is still the most monumental opening movement of any concerto.

If the central Adagio lacked a degree of repose in its orchestral introduction, Hough’s take on its almost confessional solo passages brought the required inwardness, with the course of this movement towards its agitated peak or enfolding serenity at its close never in doubt. Nor was that of the closing rondo, especially a central episode whose string fugato was deftly rendered then the piano’s gentle response enticingly conveyed. After the cadenza, horns and woodwind emerged as if leaving a benediction prior to the triumph that coursed through those final bars.

Throughout this performance, van Steen was an alert and responsive accompanist – then put the BBC Philharmonic through its paces with an animated account of Schubert’s Rosamunde (a.k.a. Die Zauberharfe), which made for an engaging if unlikely entrée into the Matthews.

For more information on David Matthews you can visit his website here. For more on the artists in this concert, click on the names to access the websites of Stephen Hough, Jac van Steen and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

On record: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Jac van Steen – David Matthews: A Vision of the Sea (Signum Classics)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Jac van Steen

David Matthews
Toward Sunrise Op.117 (2012)
Symphony no.8 Op.131 (2014)
Sinfonietta Op.67 (1995)
A Vision of the Sea Op.125 (2015)

Signum Classics SIGCD647 [67’42”]
Producer Michael George
Engineer Stephen Rinker

Recorded 7 November & 6 December 2017, BBC Studios, Mediacity, Salford, UK

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This album is billed as an approachable route in to the music of David Matthews, one of the most prominent living British symphonic composers. Matthews has nine symphonies under his belt already, and we hear the Eighth as part of this programme, but he has a wealth of orchestral music alongside, from which Jac van Steen and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra draw three works.

What’s the music like?

Matthews’ Symphony no.8 forms the centrepiece of the program, a substantial three-movement work completed in 2014. Its taut musical arguments suggest the influence of Sibelius, the harmonic language appears to build on late Vaughan Williams, and there are references to Debussy and Stravinsky in the orchestral colours used by the composer.

Yet this is by no means a derivative work. Matthews writes in the booklet note that he no longer feels the need to defend writing tonal music, and this argument gets the strongest possible endorsement from the music itself. From the opening chord, rich in woodwind, the musical exchanges are compelling, the harmonies often bewitching, and the form instinctive, written as it is by a hand of symphonic experience.

Too many newer symphonies are let down by their faster music, but not in this case. The first movement unfolds with powerful statements from brass and strings, their energetic arguments punctuated by rolling timpani. The bracing energy is complemented by a reflective Adagio, whose soft chords achieve contemplation in the context of a surrounding, uneasy mood. The music builds, reaching an impressive apex with full-bodied string sound before returning to its original state.

Matthews finishes with an uplifting set of four dances, inspired in part by vapour trails on the Kent coast. The bright colours and persuasive triple time rhythms add a lightness of touch to the full orchestra passages, resembling the profile of the second movement Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony…in a good way! The lightness of touch Matthews achieves at the final resolution is both unexpected and charming.

After the Eighth Symphony we hear the Sinfonietta from nearly 20 years earlier. A tightly compressed piece, its leaner textures generate a good deal of tension, as does the jousting between instrumental sections of the orchestra. The piece is in effect a short concerto for orchestra, culminating with thunderous timpani and short but probing melodies. It is convincing in its outcome, but less accessible with its more oblique melodies.

The accompanying pieces show Matthews’ ability to paint pictures with an orchestra. His tone poem Toward Sunrise begins the album. It is a response to the sun’s ability to make its own music through magnetic loops coiling away from its outer atmosphere, captured in sound by students at Sheffield University. Matthews takes two notes heard in that recording and transfers the motif to the depths of the lower strings, conveying the passing shadows of the night from which the sun will emerge. As the sunrise itself begins the orchestra tingle with anticipation, a volley of timpani rings out and the first rays poke through as the piece ends. It is the ideal piece with which to start.

The hiss of waves on the beach is immediately audible in A Vision of the Sea, a four-part tone poem completed in 2013. British composers have long written effective pictures of the sea, notably Vaughan Williams, Britten and Bridge, and Matthews can be added to that list. His first-hand account of English Channel vistas, punctuated by herring gulls, gets into the minds’ eye of the listener, painted with the help of ghostly piano and an expert use of the percussion section. The vision ends with another sunrise, and the crash of the waves on the shore.

Does it all work?

It does. The program is ideally judged, each work succeeding on its own terms but working as part of the bigger whole. The clinching factor is these authoritative performances from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, who have a very strong relationship with Matthews’ music. They appreciate his credentials as a fine symphonist, and his ability to create pictures in an instant.

Is it recommended?

Yes, with great enthusiasm. So many works premiered in this century are not followed up with second performances or recordings, which can be frustrating for concert goers, so it is wholly satisfying to see Signum and the BBC Philharmonic investing so much in this release. Their efforts are handsomely rewarded.

For further information on this release, visit the Signum Classics website.