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.

On record – Louis Lortie, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner – Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos 3 & 5 (Chandos)

Saint-Saëns
Rhapsodie d’Auvergne Op.73 (1884)
Piano Concerto no.3 in E flat major Op.29 (1869)
Allegro appassionato in C sharp minor Op.70 (1884)
Piano Concerto no.5 in F major Op.103 ‘Egyptian’ (1896)

Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner

Chandos CHAN 20038 [66’51”]

Producers Mike George and Brian Pidgeon
Engineer Stephen Rinker

Recorded 13 January 2018 (Rhapsodie d’Auvergne), 20 & 25 February 2019 (other works), Media City UK, Salford, Manchester

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This is the second installment of Saint-Saëns piano concertos from Louis Lortie, Edward Gardner and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. It completes the cycle of five they have been recording for Chandos.

Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concertos tend to be overlooked in the concert hall, with only occasional performances for no.2 and no.5, which was written in part during a holiday in Egypt. Their neglect is unfortunate, as there is much to enjoy as the pieces unfold. The demands on the solo pianist may be considerable, but the rewards outweigh the effort required for sure.

What’s the music like?

This new release offers the Piano Concerto no.3 in E flat major, still a relatively early work, where Saint-Saëns builds on the influence of Beethoven and Liszt to create a piece with memorable themes and unusual formal devices. We then move to his later period and the Piano Concerto no.5, the ‘Egyptian’. This is a daring piece in the sense that Saint-Saëns was not following the trend of modern music set by the post-Wagner composers, or the new sound worlds offered by Debussy and Ravel. Instead he was writing for the virtuoso pianist in a descriptive and positive sense – conventional but stretching the established ‘rules’ of the concertos. This piece is ultimately fun and packed with tunes, while asking the soloist to achieve some pretty difficult technical feats. There is a faint exoticism capturing the carefree mood of the composer on vacation.

Topping up the positive outlook are the Rapsodie d’Auvergne and the Allegro appassionato, both shorter pieces for piano and orchestra with a similarly sunny outlook. The Allegro appassionato has more drive, while the Rapsodie is a breezy piece for the great outdoors. As the booklet writer Roger Nichols observes, it is based on a tune the composer ‘heard sung by a peasant washing her clothes in a stream in the Auvergne. As such, it is possibly the only folksong from France that Saint-Saëns ever included in his music’.

Does it all work?

Yes. This is extremely positive music, celebrating the combination of piano and orchestra with a good deal of energy.

The concertos are nicely balanced. The better known Fifth, stacked high with good tunes, finds Ed Gardner keen to develop its exotic air with the lush textures of the BBC Philharmonic strings in the first movement. There is a dramatic salvo to begin the second movement, where Lortie gets the melodic inflections just right, then an exotic minimalist passage towards the end, cutting to a real flight of fancy into the finale. Lortie gets a terrific substance to the sound of the lower end of the piano.

The Piano Concerto no.3 if anything fares even better, its status elevated well above the derivative thanks to the stress on its memorable themes. There is a heroic air to the piano part that Louis Lortie develops very nicely, and his commanding performance gives the piece its essential forward drive.

The Rhapsodie d’Auvergne is a bubbly piece, starting softly but gaining ground during the development of its theme. There are brief connections with Brahms before an effervescent and watery sequence, with excellent work in the right hand from Lortie.
Meanwhile the Allegro appassionato is a red-blooded affair very much in the vein of Liszt, asking the soloist for a few feats of athleticism while remaining close to the composer’s melodic heart.

Is it recommended?

Yes. This is an ideal release for banishing any lingering winter blues! There may be some really good recordings around already of the concertos, thanks to Stephen Hough and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo (Hyperion), and looking further back the classic 1980s recordings made by Pascal Rogé and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Charles Dutoit (Decca).

These sparkling new versions, beautifully recorded, offer a great deal of passion and panache, and at the very least take their place alongside the best..

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Chandos website here

Prom 14 – BBC Philharmonic / John Storgårds: Single-movement Sibelius, Zimmermann, Schubert & Wagner

Prom 14: Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Philharmonic OrchestraJohn Storgårds

Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Prelude to Act One (c1861)
Schubert (orch. Liszt) Four Songs (1825/1815/1826/1815, orch. 1860)
Zimmermann Symphony in One Movement (1947-51, rev. 1953)
Schubert (arr. Liszt) Fantasy in C, D760, ‘Wanderer’ (1822, arr. c1850)
Sibelius Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105 (1924)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 24 July 2018

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

John Storgårds has given some enterprising concerts during his tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and this evening’s Prom was a further instance with its programme of mainly one-movement pieces and an underlying emphasis on symphonic cohesion, even unity.

The exception was the sequence of four songs by Schubert, arranged for orchestra by Liszt so that a tenuous cohesion is evident – without this being a song-cycle as such. Elizabeth Watts (below) duly had the measure of their predominantly sombre sentiments – ranging from the distanced recollection of Die junge Nonne, via remorseless passing of experiential time in Gretchen am Spinnrade and speculative radiance of Lied der Mignon, to visceral representation of fate in Erlkönig. Storgårds teased many subtleties from Liszt’s judiciously restrained orchestration.

Preceding this came a surprisingly dour account of the Prelude from The Mastersingers of Nuremburg. This grandest of Wagner music-dramas is also the most symphonic, not least its Prelude as it deftly outlines a four-movements-in-one format. While not being oblivious to this, Storgårds might have characterized these episodes more potently, though this may have been in line with his tendency to play down the music’s opulence and majesty. What resulted was a subdued and earnest performance that hardly marked him out as a budding Wagnerian.

Concluding the first half was the Symphony in One Movement by Bernd Alois Zimmermann; a timely hearing in this centenary year of the composer’s birth. Although the more discursive original version (complete with organ histrionics) has recently been revived, this revision is audibly more focussed in form and expression as it traverses a quirky yet combative sonata design – (modified!) exposition repeat included – before emerging full circle in a mood of unbridled ferocity. Storgårds was at his interpretative best here, maintaining a tensile course over an eventful score where influences of mid-century symphonism do not outface pointers to the intricacy or intensity of Zimmermann’s mature music. A notably enthusiastic reception suggested that tonight’s audience ‘got’ what the composer was about in this singular piece.

Time was when Liszt’s concertante realization of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy was a staple at these concerts, but this was only the second hearing in nearly six decades. 33 years ago, the soloist was Jorge Bolet at his unpredictable best, but Louis Lortie’s rendition (above) was altogether subtler as he brought out the pathos of the Andante then jocularity of the Presto. If the outer Allegro sections felt reined-in, this was not at the expense of that keen virtuosity informing Lortie’s playing in his solo passages or coruscating interplay with the orchestra at the close.

A century on, Sibelius not only ran movements together in his Seventh Symphony but fused them into a seamless and powerfully cumulative whole. Storgårds was certainly alive to this in what was a purposeful and often insightful reading; a little unsettled in those introductory pages, perhaps, but thereafter gauging the various transitions with a sure sense of where this music was headed while investing the vertiginous trombone entries with implacable majesty. One of this season’s most absorbing concerts thus far was brought to an impressive close.

BBC Proms 2017 – John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Sibelius, Grieg, Schumann & Hindemith

Prom 33: Lise Davidsen (soprano), Alban Gerhardt (cello), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds

Grieg Peer Gynt Op.23 (excerpts) (1876)

Sibelius Luonnotar Op.70 (1913); Karelia Suite Op.11 (1893)

Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129 (1850)

Hindemith Symphony, Mathis der Maler (1934)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 10 August, 2017

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

John Storgårds has been making his mark on the BBC Proms in his appearances as Chief Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. Tonight’s tale of two geographical halves commenced with excerpts from Grieg’s music to Peer Gynt; starting with the lively Overture (hardanger fiddles in evidence thanks to the violas), then continuing with a vehement Ingrid’s Lament, a deftly propelled Morning and a pensive Solveig’s Song undermined by Lise Davidsen’s fluttery vocal; finishing with the suitably quirky Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter.

Davidsen (above) was then heard to better advantage in Sibelius’s tone-poem Luonnotar, coping ably with the stratospheric range of this singular creation myth – not the least of whose fascinations was having been premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral. There have been some memorable accounts of this piece over recent years, and if Davidsen did not efface memories of such as Mattila and Komsi, she duly pointed up its drama and mystery in what was, for the greater part, a sympathetic account. The Proms audience was suitably attentive.

Sibelius’s comparatively mellifluous Karelia Suite brought this Nordic first half to its close. Storgårds’s widely contrasted tempi for the Intermezzo left a rather disjointed impression, and while the Alla Marcia sounded rumbustious enough, a certain coarseness of playing rather limited one’s enjoyment. Best by far was the Ballade, one of the composer’s most arresting earlier pieces in its enfolding modal harmonies and given a notably rapt reading with such aspects as the wistful cor anglais melody towards its close eloquently phrased.

The Germanic second half began in more restrained mood with Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Rarely performed for decades (and more often in the transcription for violin), this deceptively genial piece is among its composer’s most ingenious in terms of form and motivic continuity. Alban Gerhardt (above) maintained a determined while never merely inflexible course across its three continuous movements, the BBC Philharmonic providing support as attentive yet unobtrusive as the music required. Interesting to hear that the soloist thought the finale musically the least successful, as this emerged as arguably the most successful part – not least with its engaging dialogue kept on its toes and with no sense of dourness or grittiness as regarded the orchestral texture. Overall, a perceptive and convincing account of a work still too easily overlooked.

Storgårds then rounded-off the programme with a taut and tensile reading of the symphony that Hindemith derived from his opera Mathis der Maler. This retelling of cultural meltdown and social antagonism during the Thirty Years War proved too ‘contemporary’ for the Nazi regime to stomach, and it was no surprise that the premiere of the complete opera took place in Zurich. Storgårds had the measure of the Angelic Concert with its austere chorales and angular though never impersonal polyphony. The Entombment of Christ was affecting for all its brevity, while the climactic Temptation of St Anthony built surely and impulsively from its stark introduction, through a central interlude of tangible pathos, to a culmination such as blazed forth in affirmation. All credit to Storgårds for ensuring so cathartic an impact.

Richard Whitehouse (photo of Lise Davidsen (c) Ole-Jørgen-Bratland)

BBC Proms – Nielsen Fifth Symphony; Schumann Violin Concerto & Jörg Widmann’s Armonica – BBC Philharmonic / Storgårds

prom-23-1

John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms on Monday 1 August. (c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 23; Royal Albert Hall, Monday 1 August 2016

Widmann Armonica (2006) [UK premiere] [Christa Schönfeldinger (glass harmonica), Teodoro Anzellotti, (accordion)]

Schumann Violin Concerto in D minor (1853) (Thomas Zehetmair, violin)

Sibelius The Tempest – Prelude (1925)

Nielsen Symphony No.5 (1922)

Listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Tonight’s Prom brought a first visit this season from the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by its principal guest conductor John Storgårds in a wide-ranging programme which began in ethereal near-silence and ended in a blaze of affirmation rarely equalled this past century.

The relative silence was to be found in Armonica, among the most distinctive pieces by Jörg Widmann in that it features a solo role for glass harmonica – partnered here by the more abrasive sound of accordion in music which emerges into then evanesces out of focus; heard against a backdrop where indebtedness to Ligeti’s earlier orchestral works does not preclude a wealth of imaginative textures, particularly in the opening minutes. Christa Schönfeldinger and Teodoro Anzellotti interacted seamlessly, not least in those overly gestural closing pages.

prom-23-2

Christa Schönfeldinger performs Widmann’s Armonica with and Teodoro Anzellotti, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms. (c) Chris Christodolou

Perhaps it was such ethereal sounds that the ailing Schumann heard over the troubled weeks prior to his final breakdown. If so, little of this otherworldliness found its way into the Violin Concerto which was his last major work. Its having been kept under wraps for eight decades, then miraculously relocated near the outset of the Nazi era, has passed into legend. Musically the piece can verge on the routine, not least a first movement whose progress is more than a little dogged due to insufficiently contrasted ideas, then a finale whose underlying polonaise rhythm abets the repetitiveness. Best is a slow movement that revisits Schumann’s ‘romanza’ idiom a last time; its enervated aura exquisitely judged by Thomas Zehetmair and Storgårds – musicians who have (uniquely?) encountered this unsettling work both as soloist and conductor.

The emotional temperature rose appreciably in the second half – first with the Prelude from the extensive incidental music Sibelius wrote for a Copenhagen production of The Tempest. Guardedly admired at first, it has latterly been hailed as a precursor of tonal innovations half a century on. While his account was not lacking for physical immediacy, Storgårds chose to emphasize those modal contours that spread across woodwind and brass as the piece moves beyond its climax towards as tenuous a resolution as any during the first half of last century.

How to wrest resolution from apparent chaos was the goal for Nielsen in his Fifth Symphony, a work that has rightly moved towards the centre of the repertoire over the past two decades. Consistency was the watchword of Storgårds’s interpretation – finding an unarguable ‘tempo giusto’ for the initial half of the first movement, its unfolding across shifting tonal planes as finely articulated as the intensifying ambivalence that suddenly clears going into the Adagio rejoinder. The climax had suitably majestic import, and it was hardly Paul Patrick’s fault if his side-drum ‘cadenza’ was outshone by John Bradbury’s plangent clarinet solo in the coda. The second movement’s propulsive opening Allegro was well judged and if Storgårds risked momentum in the curious bitonal transition, the ensuing Presto had the right headlong energy.

Nor was there any lack of focus in the fugal Andante which gradually works its way to where the earlier resolve can be regained, albeit now with a formal and expressive closure as makes possible a thrilling peroration that was superbly gauged at the end of this impressive reading.

Richard Whitehouse