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 – Elgar Reimagined (Raphael Wallfisch, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (Lyrita)

elgar-reimagined-disc

Elgar arr. Matthews String Quartet in E minor Op. 83 (1918)
Elgar arr. Fraser Miniatures for Cello and Strings: Chanson de Matin, Op.15 No. 2 (1899). Chanson de Nuit, Op.15 No. 1 (1899). The Wild Bears, Op. 1b No. 6 (1908). Nimrod, Op.36 No. 9 (1899). Romance in D minor, Op.62 (1910). Sospiri, Op.70 (1914). Mazurka, Op.10 No.1 (1899). Pleading, Op.48 (1908). In Moonlight (1904). Salut d’Amour, Op.12 (1888). Adieu (1933)

Raphael Wallfisch (cello), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Producer Phil Rowlands Engineer Tim Burton

Lyrita SRCD 394 [69’27”]

Recorded 22 September and 9 October 2020 at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

This new release by the English String Orchestra focuses on Elgar, a composer championed by this ensemble throughout its 44 years of existence, whose music is given an appealing and (for the most part) instructive appraisal across the programme of arrangements featured here.

What’s the music like?

The principal work is the String Quartet in E minor, arranged by David Matthews. Second in a wartime triptych of chamber pieces, it is less introspective than the Violin Sonata preceding it but less emotionally charged than the Piano Quintet which came after, while arguably the most finely proportioned – not least in terms of the subtle transformation of thematic elements across and between its movements. In this guise, it follows on from the Serenade then Introduction and Allegro as the hitherto missing large-scale work for string orchestra of Elgar’s high maturity.

Matthews has been mindful to equate the soloistic with the ensemble potential of this music, so the result is neither straightforward transcription nor radical re-conception. The opening Allegro discreetly evokes an autumnal rumination as sets the tone for much of what follows; even finer is the central Piacevole, its main theme suffused with an intensity whose extent is only revealed at the close. If the emotional acuity of the final Allegro is marginally diffused, there is no absence of purposeful intent as the music proceeds to a coda of terse decisiveness.

The remainder of this programme comprises a sequence of Miniatures, arranged for cello and strings by Donald Fraser and played by Raphael Wallfisch. Ostensibly an 11-movement suite, its efficacy in terms of smaller groupings and even individual encores should be self-evident.

Chanson de Matin launches proceedings in mellifluous fashion, and if the cello’s assumption of the melodic line is slightly to the detriment of the original scoring, that could hardly be said of Chanson de Nuit whose sombre contours and inward character are unerringly realized. Nor does The Wild Bears lose out on vivacity, and if the arrangement conjures up Saint-Saëns, this only serves to underline the importance of ‘Second Empire’ French music on Elgar’s thinking. The cello’s dominance in Nimrod rather detracts from the subtlety of this Enigma Variation’s instrumentation – conversely, the Romance brings soloist and strings into even closer accord than the composer’s version with orchestra. The highlight here is Sospiri, which presents one of Elgar’s finest inspirations in a striking new light. Lighter fare comes in the robust tread of the Mazurka, followed by an eloquent take on the song Pleading. In Moonlight (adapted from In the South) responds well to such limpid treatment, as does Salut d’Amour in conveying its essence without cloying. A wistful take on the piano piece Adieu provides an affecting close.

Does it all work?

Very largely. The idiomatic nature of the String Quartet is enhanced by the ESO’s committed playing under Kenneth Woods, a follow-up to their recording of the Piano Quintet in Fraser’s orchestration (Avie), while Raphael Wallfisch’s conviction in the Miniatures is undoubted.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least as the quality of the playing is abetted by the naturalness of the sound and informativeness of annotations by Matthews and Woods. Heard together, these two parts of Elgar Reimagined make for desirable listening in this 165th year since the composer’s birth.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release and make a purchase at the Lyrita website.  For more information on the artists, click on the names for Raphael Wallfisch, Kenneth Woods and the English String Orchestra – and for the arrangers, David Matthews and Donald Fraser 

Live review – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Reimagined Part 2

ElgarStringQuartet-Screenshot

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Elgar, arr. David Matthews String Quartet in E minor Op.83 (1918)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded September 22 2020 for online broadcast from Friday 14 May 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Following its programme of miniatures – original and arrangements – for cello and strings in March, this latest online concert by the English Symphony Orchestra returned to Elgar for a reading of his String Quartet arranged by David Matthews for a full complement of strings.

This was the second in a triptych of chamber works composed in rural seclusion at Brinkwells in Sussex, Elgar having escaped the wartime disillusion of London for what was to be his last sustained period of creativity. Less introspective than the Violin Sonata that preceded it while less emotionally charged than the Piano Quintet that came after, the String Quartet is the most finely proportioned of the three – unfolding as a sustained sweep whose subtle transformation of thematic elements across and between its three movements make it among the finest of his later compositions. Heard in this guise, it follows on from the Serenade then Introduction and Allegro as the hitherto missing large-scale work for string orchestra of Elgar’s high maturity – which should hopefully commend it to an audience beyond that of the composer’s devotees.

Matthews has numerous arrangements to his credit (not least Schumann’s Piano Concerto as recast for marimba), and he has been mindful to balance the soloistic and ensemble potential of this music, so the result is neither straightforward transcription nor radical re-conception. The opening Allegro moderato discreetly emphasises an autumnal musing that sets the tone for much of what follows; even finer is the second movement – marked Piacevole – whose equability yields a main theme suffused with intensity, the extent of which is only revealed towards the close. If the emotional acuity of the final Allegro is marginally diffused when rendered for larger forces, there is no lack of rhythmic definition as the music proceeds to a coda whose terse decisiveness is far removed from the opulence of just a few years before.

Its idiomatic nature was enhanced by the ESO’s attentive playing under Kenneth Woods, a natural follow-on to their take on the Piano Quintet in Donald Fraser’s arrangement (Avie). Heard together, these two parts of Elgar Reimagined should make for a desirable recording.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

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 – Sir John Tomlinson, Rozanna Madylus & Counterpoise: Kokoschka’s Doll (Champs Hill Records))

Rozanna Madylus (mezzo-soprano), Sir John Tomlinson (bass), Counterpoise [Kyle Horch (saxophone/clarinet), Deborah Calland (trumpet), Fenella Humphreys (violin), Iain Farrington (piano)]

Music by John Casken, Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler, David Matthews, Richard Wagner, Anton Webern and Alexander Zemlinsky

Champs Hill Records CHRCD150 [81’54”]

Producer Matthew Bennett
Engineer Dave Rowell

Recorded 21-22 May 2018 & 17 January 2019, Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The enterprising ensemble Counterpoise returns with its second release – an ambitious and wide-ranging selection centred upon that redoubtable femme fatale who was Alma Mahler and with a major new piece of music-theatre featuring Sir John Tomlinson from John Casken.

What’s the music like?

The generous programme effectively divides into two parts. The Art of Love opens with four songs by Alma – her setting of Julius Bierbaum’s Mild Summer Night and A Nocturnal Light followed by that of Gustav Falke’s Harvest Song, all of them accorded a fresh perspective in resourceful arrangements by David Matthews. Much the finest is the recently located setting of Leo Greiner’s Lonely Walk, but even this must yield to the radiance of Paul Wertheimer’s Blissful Hour by Zemlinsky, Alma’s lover before Mahler and an underrated Lieder composer.

Matthews’s subtle arrangement of Mahler’s rapturous Rückert setting If You Love for Beauty, followed by his ominous Wunderhorn setting Where the Splendid Trumpet Sounds, proceed Iain Farrington’s violin-and-piano transcription of the start of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (it would be worth hearing the rest). Webern’s glinting Trio Movement for clarinet, trumpet and piano is intriguingly countered by Matthews’s hardly longer yet more equable Transformation (with addition of piano); after which, his arrangement of Wagner’s Dreams (last of five settings after Mathilde Wesendonck) underlines its rapt introspection. Rounding off this first part with Liszt’s take on Isolde’s Liebestod might almost be thought rather predictable, but Farrington’s pointedly unshowy rendering is an undoubted pleasure.

The second half of this programme is devoted to Kokoschka’s Doll – a melodrama for bass-baritone and ensemble by John Casken, who has also devised the text in collaboration with Barry Millington. Drawing on the artist’s letters and autobiography, this almost 40-minute piece focusses on Kokoschka’s fractious liaison with a recently widowed Alma Mahler, his near-death experience as a soldier on the Eastern front, then his ill-fated attempt to recreate Alma as a doll to his idealized specifications. Unfolding between past and present, the text provides plenty of leeway for Sir John Tomlinson to convey the tortured while not a little self-seeking protagonist through an adept interplay of speech and parlando – dispatched with his inimitable blend of fiery rhetoric and soulful rumination. Instrumentally the music is rich in timbral and textural nuance, following the emotional ebb and flow of Kokoschka’s musings as they spill over into the irrational. An engrossing concept, skilfully realized, which would certainly be worth presenting in a scenic version at some of the UK’s many studio-theatres.

Does it all work?

As an overall sequence, certainly. Counterpoise is an object-lesson of unity within diversity, whether in the range of music this ensemble brings together or in the arresting nature of the arrangements it favours. Added to which, the singing of Rozanna Madylus is a treat in store.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Performances and recording leave nothing to be desired, while the booklet features a succinct introduction by Millington along with reproductions from Kokoschka’s drawings of his ‘Alma Doll’ – more appealing visually than it becomes at the denouement of the scenario!

Listen and Buy

You can read more about this release, listen to clips and purchase from the Champs Hill website