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David MATTHEWS (b.1943)
Music for Piano
Piano Concerto Op.111 (2009) [18.27]
Piano Sonata Op.47 (1989) [12.42]
Variations for Piano Op.72 (1997) [11.52]
Two Dionysus-Dithyrambs Op. 94: No. 1 With steady, calm movement (2007) [2.45]; No. 2 Esultante (2004) [2.50]
One to Tango Op. 51d [2.55]
Laura Mikkola (piano)
Orchestra Nova/George Vass
rec. Pamoja Hall, Sevenoaks School, Kent, 25-26 October 2012

On 9 March 2013 David Matthews reached seventy and the year has been marked for him by some premiere recordings and a Prom commission as well as much else.
Here for the first time - and on a label which has already promoted his chamber works - his piano music has been recorded. Like much else of his output it is eclectic and varied. One of the descriptors used in speaking about composers like David Matthews is ‘post-romantic’. With some works like the brooding orchestral In the Dark Time (NMC D067) and The Music of Dawn (Chandos CHAN 10487) and indeed the second subject of the Piano Concerto recorded here, the epithet has considerable veracity. That said, Matthews is also very aware of his classical inheritance.
For the Variations Op. 72, Matthews hits upon a folk-like melody of gentle simplicity with just three harmonising chords. He then subjects it to twenty-four variations. The classical design is reflected in the fact that even at first hearing the melody can be traced aurally despite the abrupt tempo changes and altering harmonies. Toccata have helpfully tracked each variation. In his notes Matthews highlights that the first fifteen are largely fast and the remainder much slower including at just over 90 seconds, a slow blues and later a ‘moderate’ blues. Some variations are as short as nineteen seconds but each has a distinct character - a classic example of a modern and logical theme and a tuneful set of variations.
The Piano Concerto, mentioned above was commissioned for what could be called a ‘classical’ orchestra of strings and piano. At eighteen minutes it is a compact ‘classical’ length. The soloist’s contribution is deliberately non-confrontational. The first movement, a Con moto and the final Allegro are both in a succinct sonata-form. The second movement is a Tango. Matthews has written quite number of these - see later. Is this an attempt to jump on to the Piazzolla bandwagon? Well, interestingly, in his notes the composer describes it as an “ideal substitute for the Classical Minuet”. The third movement is an atmospheric and deeply felt Elegy in memory of Howard Skempton’s wife Susan. This is a really enjoyable work, with much to offer music-lovers of all persuasions. The orchestra under George Vass appear to be foot perfect and give every appearance of enjoying the experience.
The three movement Piano Sonata is an intriguing piece. There is no break between the movements, but the outer ones are so powerful, both being marked Allegro, that the word Beethovenian comes to mind. Consequently the Andante central section seems to make little impact. It was the first work that Matthews composed during his tenure as the Artistic Director of the Deal Festival, which also saw the premiere of the Variations.
This Sonata is virtuoso music and Laura Mikkola is equal to it. Matthews describes her as ‘a marvellous exponent of my music’ and this performance proves the point. It is an exciting work and she is utterly in tune with its mood and demands.
The last three tracks open with the Two Dionysus Dithyrambs. A dithyramb was an ancient Greek hymn sung in honour of Dionysus - here it is in honour of Nietzsche. The second one, marked Esultante was composed first and was meant to capture the last days of the philosopher’s life as he lost his sanity - it is wild and virtuoso. The first, which was inspired by a quoted poem ‘Die Sonne Sinkt’ from Nietzsche’s Dionysus-Dithyramb, is a calm piece evoking blue skies and seas.
The last track, One for Tango is a piano version of a piece, which exists in a form for two, three and four instruments and originally comes out of Matthews’ Fourth Symphony, which is also a Tango. It is quite fun, ends in the ‘wrong’ key and brings the disc to a witty conclusion.
The recording is strong and immediate. The excellent CD booklet has two essays by the composer - ‘An Autobiographical Note’ and ‘The Piano and Me: A Belated Engagement’ - both of which are uncommonly fascinating.
Gary Higginson