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David MATTHEWS (b.1943)
Complete Piano Trios
Piano Trio No. 1 Op. 34 (1983) [18.35]
Piano Trio No. 2 Op. 61 (1993) [18.32]
Piano Trio No. 3 Op. 97 (2005) [16.52]
Journeying Songs
Op. 95 for solo cello (2004-8) [20.36]
Leonore Piano Trio (Benjamin Nabarro (violin); Gemma Rosefield (cello); Tim Horton (piano))
rec. 23, 26 February 2016, Church of St. John the Evangelist, St. Stephen’s House, Oxford

David Matthews is doubly fortunate. First, Toccata seem to be recording all of his chamber music with the string quartets already mostly available (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 ~ Volume 3 ~ Volume 4). Secondly, on this disc, he has the wonderful, technically impeccable and sensitive Leonore Piano Trio as his performers.

Piano Trio No. 1 was written at the suggestion of that much admired figure — not least by Matthews — Hans Keller. The second movement of this trio, a scherzo, is a sort of character portrait of Keller. It is, as the composer writes in his very interesting and useful booklet notes, “drily humorous … conversational even argumentative” with a theme “of Jewish character and another with a Viennese lilt”. There is even a quote from Schoenberg. The first movement is in sonata form the use of which Keller would, it seems, have approved. The slow movement is a beautifully poised meditation which is a transcription of a song setting of a nature poem by Kathleen Raine. It was composed partially at least when, Matthews was staying on Canna, a remote Hebridean island. The finale is marked ‘Molto moderato’ and in it he ‘opts for utter simplicity”. It seems to form out of the previous movement but appearances can be deceptive — listeners will see if that epithet seems accurate. This Piano Trio No. 1 had been recorded in 1992 by the English Piano Trio on Kingdom (KCLCD 2029). Although, by and large, I prefer this new-comer the quicker tempo and lighter touch adopted by English Piano Trio in the fourth movement is more magical and suitably wistful.

The Piano Trio No 2 begins affirmatively with another, concise, sonata–allegro movement. Like the First Trio, another person close to Matthews is remembered and that is his one-time partner the novelist Maggie Hemingway who died in May 1993, aged 47. Her last novel ‘Eyes’ was partially set in Venice and the lengthy slow movement, here placed second, is a ‘Barcarolle’. Composer and writer had collaborated on three works including, in 1988, ‘Cantiga’ for soprano and orchestra. Perhaps something of her energy can be found in the exhilarating Scherzo and Trio, which is almost jazzy. The enigmatic finale ends with a flutter of disappearing birds after a wonderfully melodic middle section reminding us that Matthews is never frightened to write a tune with a touch of romance.

On reviewing Matthews' Quartet No. 12, in 2014, I described it as a masterwork and I feel the same about his Piano Trio No. 3. It is in two movements. The first was a compositional challenge which the composer says he tried out in the first movement of his Fourth Symphony, that is to write a movement without harmony but just with a line passed between the instruments or given in unison. It’s a quirky idea that has dramatic potential and here gradually builds ending, surprisingly, in a peaceful C major. There are three brief melodic ideas used in the movement and there are three main ideas in the ensuing Andante moderato, a much longer movement which is deeply chromatic. Although it begins in A minor and concludes in the tonic major it might end up being a rather long and complex exercise to analyse what happens in between. By way of contrast there is a brief and skittish middle Scherzo. The manipulation of the themes is clever and masterly and the work is largely imbued with an autumnal nostalgia, which has drawn me back a few times.

Journeying Songs consists of three movements dedicated to three women who are important to Matthews. The first ‘Song’ is for Judith Weir and was written on the occasion of her 50th birthday in 2004. The very brief second is to Elaine Gould a cellist who is also chief editor of Faber Music. The third is to the cellist recorded here, Gemma Rosefield. It proves the most quixotic of the three ‘songs’. They are all however, strongly lyrical and, as Matthews admits the first has a “ folkish character” and a “kinship to a Spanish/Arabic folksong”. Weir has herself used folk melodies as an inspiration for some of her own music.

It’s a real joy to hear Gemma Rosefield play her own piece and also the other two. Although written over a period of four years it was only in 2008, on the completion of the last piece, that Matthews gave the work its opus number.

Toccata are to be thanked and congratulated on the work they are doing on behalf of the prolific David Matthews whose post-romantic style appeals more and more as new works appear. His music makes a fascinating contrast to that of his brother Colin who perhaps has a more international appeal but whose music the celebrated ‘man in the street’ might find more challenging. All in all these scores are worth getting inside. A disc to search out.

Gary Higginson



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