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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto in A Major K488
Sonata in A Minor K310
Fantasie and Fugue in C Major K394
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Sonata in E Major Op 109
John FIELD (1782-1837)

Nocturne No 6 in E Minor
Nocturne in E Major (Midi) in rondo form
Denis Matthews, piano
Recorded 1942-46
PEARL GEM 0162 [75’30]


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Matthews was born in 1919 and studied piano with Harold Craxton and composition with William Alwyn at the Royal Academy of Music from 1935-40. He made his London debut at the age of nineteen under the indefatigable Henry Wood and wartime exigencies led to opportunities to record for Walter Legge – always on the lookout during the War for talented young musicians to consolidate the domestic catalogue – at Columbia. Jeremy Nicholas’ sleevenote emphasises Matthew’s directness and simplicity and these are indeed characteristics of his pianism though not ones that imply superficiality or fatal lack of engagement as they might in other hands.

When these recordings were made Matthews was in his mid twenties, one of the youngest pianists in a field that included Mozartians and Beethovenians of such eminence as Solomon, Curzon, Hess and Kathleen Long. It’s a pity that Pearl doesn’t go into any great depth about the early Matthews discs as the details aren’t hard to find and nor are the exact recording dates, which aren’t noted either. Matthews went to EMI Abbey Road in July 1941 to record the Bach English Suite No 2, the Beethoven C Minor Variations G191 and Op 119 Bagatelles [Nos 1 and 11] – in the event none was issued. Next month he returned and successfully completed the recordings. The Fantasia and Fugue on this Pearl was therefore one of his earliest discs – September 16, 1942, closely followed by his famous "emergency learn" of the Rawsthorne Bagatelles used as a fill up to the Moeran Symphony recording with the Hallé and Heward. His prowess and esteem as a chamber player were cemented early with celebrated recording of the Beethoven Horn Sonata with his friend Dennis Brain and the Clarinet Trio with Reginald Kell and Anthony Pini. K488 was recorded with Britain’s leading wartime orchestra, the Liverpool Philharmonic, on August 28 1944 in Philharmonic Hall. It was a busy month for Legge. He also managed to record Boult in Elgar’s Second Symphony, Solomon and Boult in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, Moiseiwitsch and Weldon in Tchaikovsky’s Second Concerto (the day after this Matthews traversal, same orchestra) and Heddle Nash in some arias.

The conductor for the Mozart was to have been Sargent but his daughter, Pamela, died and Weldon took over at short notice. The balance slightly favours the orchestra, with the piano sounding very slightly recessed and veiled, though Matthews himself is full of clarity and intelligence. In the first movement his diminuendos are chastely appropriate and he never imposes large dynamic ranges on the music – there is a scaled equilibrium to his playing that is winningly attractive. There is also an unadorned gravity, a wise simplicity to his way with the adagio – an aptly withdrawn sensibility and in the finale there is again no over emphases or theatrical fillips or flourishes to mar the line. His duetting with the orchestral wind principals has a chamber intimacy all its own. (A decade or so later Matthews re-recorded the Concerto with the Philharmonia and Rudolf Schwarz, again supervised by Legge). In the Sonata K310 he is more than adequately assertive but doesn’t take the repeat – or maybe wasn’t encouraged to given shellac shortages. I found some of his phrasing in the flowing slow movement just a little strait laced though, an occasion where his simplicity and honesty elided rather more into lack of engagement. In the Fantasie and fugue he is not quite the equal of such as, say, Paul Badura-Skoda, but is still impressive in its refined imagination. I enjoyed the unaffected directness of the Op 109 E Major Sonata. As expected he brings an affecting and unselfconscious rightness to the final movement’s adagio introduction and a surety to the variational passages. He is also in the best traditions of Field playing in the Nocturne especially.

Much here is of a refined pianism; if it seems aloof it’s in the interests of structural integrity; if dynamics are restricted it’s the better to serve the work’s emotional profile. Matthews took his own life after a period of manic depression in 1988, having long since given up a performing career in favour of teaching and lecturing. To what extent this was – as Pearl asserts in its jewel case – a "tragic early death" (Matthews was 69) is debatable (tragic, yes – early, no) but his playing on record, as presented here, preserves playing of maturity and insight.

Jonathan Woolf


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