Symphony No.7, Op.109 [BBC commission: world premiere]
Reviewed by: Helen Pearce
Reviewed: 24 April, 2010
Venue: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
It was an evening of Seventh Symphonies, but aside from their title, the two works shared little common ground. Clocking in at twenty minutes (a quarter of the length of the Mahler), David Matthews’s single-movement symphony found a clear model in Sibelius. Its opening theme germinated new, related material in a manner akin to Sibelian metamorphic techniques, while the searching melody lines and soft string textures evoked a soundworld which resonated with Nordic influences. A central dance-like section characterised by spritely woodwind solos stood a world away from the nightmarish scherzo at the heart of Mahler’s Seventh. Certainly, Matthews’s piece did not present the most challenging premiere of Manchester’s Mahler cycle, which sees each of his symphonies paired with a commission. Matthews’s adherence to traditional form and musical language, combined with the raw excitement provided by a timpani cadenza (performed with aplomb by Paul Turner) helped to ensure a crowd-pleaser. However, the fact that this symphony is embedded (perhaps rather too cosily) in familiar territory does not diminish Matthews’s achievement in creating an absorbing work that provided an effective foil to the Mahler. Accordingly, Matthews’s attempt to indicate a dubious sense of companionship between the two symphonies in his programme note, which informed us that his symphony ends in the relative major of the key in which Mahler began his Seventh, seemed far from necessary.
Mahler’s Seventh Symphony has had more than its fair share of detractors, but the BBC Philharmonic, with Gianandrea Noseda at the helm, is well placed to convert the staunchest of critics. The eclecticism of this symphony is hinted at by its extraordinary orchestral line-up; Mahler makes use of a guitar, mandolin and cow-bells, and entrusts his menacing opening theme to the tenor horn (the baritone in English), played here by Richard Brown with a commendable warmth of tone. The BBC Philharmonic boasts wind and brass players capable of melting in and out of the orchestral textures with the utmost sensitivity; a skill which came to the forefront in the lyrical episodes of the first movement. The march of the first ‘Nachtmusik’ seemed to swagger delectably; the scherzo conveyed urgency and agitation but never lost the precision which renders the quirky interjections so effective. A potpourri of musical styles and a minefield of notoriously difficult tempo changes, this symphony demands the controlled virtuosity that Noseda and his musicians evidently relished, not least in the exuberant finale. It was a concert that required the BBC Philharmonic at the top of its game; the players rose to the challenge tremendously.