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James MATHESON (b.1970)
String Quartet [33:57]
Violin Concerto [24:49]
Times Alone, for soprano and piano [19:13]
Color Field Quartet
Baird Dodge (violin)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Laura Strickling (soprano)
Thomas Sauer (piano)
rec. live, 1-4 November 2015, Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, California (quartet, Times); live, 15 December 2011, Chicago SO Hall (concerto)
YARLUNG RECORDS 25670 [78:01]

This is my first encounter with the music of James Matheson, an American composer whose music is both colourful and accessible. What better introduction could there be – a concerto, a string quartet and a song-cycle. The recording was sponsored by J and Helen Schlichting of California, who also commissioned the String Quartet.

At 18 minutes the Quartet’s opening movement is the most substantial and ambitious. It begins with a swirling coruscation of sound, persistently driven and underpinned by motoric rhythms. There’s a feel of forward momentum and purposeful direction. In the central section, where the music is more relaxed, each instrument is given the opportunity to state its case. Then the energy returns in the form of declamatory sweeps. The slow movement is intensely lyrical, but the emotion is tinged with melancholy and sadness. At one point it reaches a passionate climax. The finale is, as it states on the tin, ‘Quick, Breathless’. All four players leap into the fray with some high-octane rhetoric. The Color Field Quartet give a deeply committed account.

Working to a joint commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Violin Concerto was especially written for Baird Dodge the CSO’s principal second violin. Composer and soloist go back a long way to when they were room-mates at college. The live performance here under Esa-Pekka Salonen is the premiere. Cast in three movements, the first, titled Caprice, is the longest at 14 minutes. The violin enters from the start with a busy scurrying passage. When the orchestra come in, their portentous gestures form a backdrop. The movement is dark, with an unsettled feeling about it. The soloist, who is kept occupied throughout, needs plenty of stamina. Baird steps up to the mark admirably. Matheson’s orchestration shows a wealth of ingenuity and flair, and much of the scoring is sparse and pared down. Salonen goes for clarity of texture, whilst maintaining tension. There’s one passage at 10:28 where the solo flute takes up the solo violin’s scurrying motif, whilst the latter hovers above with wistful ponderings. The moto perpetuo eventually peters away towards the end. The two movements that follow are shorter and linked. The Chaconne, inspired by the slow movement of Mahler’s Sixth, is sombre and angst-ridden, with Baird declaiming some dissonant double-stops of striking directness. Salonen shows sensitive awareness of dynamic gradients. The violin becomes more animated against a bleak orchestral landscape, with some captivating woodwind contributions along the way. The Finale is a Dance, energetic and vital. Brilliantly orchestrated, it’s a violinistic tour-de-force. All concerned deliver a rhythmically propulsive display.

The song-cycle Times Alone was commissioned by the American soprano Kiera Duffy, who premiered it at Rockefeller University, New York in February 2013 with Roger Vignoles. The five surrealist poems set by Matheson are from Antonio Machado’s Soledades, galerias y otros poemas of 1907. The songs, in English translation, are here sung by Laura Strickling, with Thomas Sauer at the piano. The first three are lively and animated, and the last two more serious and thoughtful. Strickling’s shapely, nuanced voicings and emotional urgency in the first three songs has a striking directness. Thomas Sauer achieves some luminous sonorities in the final pair, blending admirably with Strikling’s deeply personal utterances.

The release comes with a 42 page booklet containing some beautifully produced colour photographs of the artists involved, together with the production team. As well as discussing the evolution of this compilation, for the more technically minded, there’s some fascinating information on the recording process used. Yarlung Records also offers three alternative vinyl equivalents for those interested.

This release offers a rewarding conspectus of Matheson’s output.

Stephen Greenbank



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