Ascension [world premiere]
Pelléas et Mélisande, Op.46 [selections: At the Castle Gate; Mélisande; Mélisande’s Death]
Symphony No.5, Op.78
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 10 June, 2010
Venue: St John’s, Waterloo, London
The Southbank Sinfonia is of graduate and post-graduate musicians from London academies and conservatoires who commit for eight months each year to gain experience of a wide orchestral repertoire under different conductors in many locations. Simon Over is the maestro in charge of the artistic programme. The management has a refreshing policy of playing new music. Generally eschewing commissions, it performs contemporary works deserving of an outing beyond their premieres. Hence this concert contained both brand-new and nearly-new works by respectively Laura Bowler and David Matthews.
Bowler’s Ascension is not about religion but inspired by the rising melody heard on the double bass at the opening. It is an imaginative and atmospheric work, steeped in modernist dress. Devices used include string harmonics, chord-clusters and shrill woodwind sounds, all designed it seems to send a chill down the spine. Lasting eight minutes, it was conducted with aplomb by Nicholas Cleobury and played with conviction.
David Matthews also opens his Aubade on sounds from the double bass before heralding the first of four Australian bird-calls. There are also string harmonics but, here, scraps of birdsong, which develop into a fragrant tone poem, and which allowed for a level of contact denied the listener in Ascension.
Matthews had two works in the programme separated by one of his favourite composers, Sibelius, these selections from his incidental music to Maeterlinck’s “Pélleas et Mélisande”, demonstrating that no-one at that time (1905) was composing such dark-hued music and to such devastating effect. Cleobury took his time over each movement but the orchestra maintained the line throughout so that the final cadence made its melismatic impact.
The concert ended with David Matthews’s vibrant, atmospheric Symphony No.5, written in 1999, music that emerges from the darker timbres of its symphonic predecessors into a shining, lyrical and energetic world. The Fifth Symphony opens in celebratory fashion in the manner of William Walton and Malcolm Arnold and strikes a level of momentum reminiscent of two earlier symphonies, Tippett’s Second and Roussel’s Third. The scherzo is a take on Matthews hearing a recording of a Benny Goodman concert at Carnegie Hall. It requires considerable virtuosity from individual players and none were shrinking violets on this occasion. The slow movement seems to derive from a haunted English landscape, full of shadows and uneasy feelings and dissipates through a harp intervention into the joyous sounds of the finale as if we emerge into midsummer rural festivities of an England long ago.
Cleobury led his young charges with authority and understanding of the optimism to be heard in this symphony, although a fuller complement of strings was needed to counter the brilliant sounds from brass and woodwinds in music of such deep feeling and instinctive vibrancy that is rare among contemporary composers.