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.