David MATTHEWS (b 1943)
Symphony No. 9, Op 140 (2016) [26:43]
Variations for Strings, Op 40 (1986) [17:49]
Double Concerto for violin, viola and strings, Op 122 (2013) [18:50]
Sara Trickey (violin)
Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola)
English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods
rec. 2018, St George’s, Bristol; Priory Church, Great Malvern, UK
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6382 [63:55]
Time can play tricks on one. I’m sure there was a period a few decades back when in terms of recordings at least David Matthews was much the lesser-known quantity of the two composing siblings. His younger brother Colin adopted more astringent, modernist leanings and his finely crafted, densely woven music became almost well known, regularly featuring on concert programmes and on disc, most obviously via the benign auspices of Unicorn-Kanchana and NMC, among others. It’s not as though Colin’s music has disappeared; on the contrary – there have been two wonderfully engaging discs in the last few years on the Hallé orchestra’s own label, while his orchestral arrangements of both books of Debussy’s Préludes have become deservedly popular; there was even Pluto, his ‘completion’ of Holst’s Planets Suite, although no sooner had that appeared than that particular outpost of the solar system was unceremoniously relegated by the powers that be to the astronomical equivalent of the Northern Premier League.
In the meantime his brother’s music has begun to find its audience and acquire an equally formidable reputation. Toccata Classics have released four discs of a projected complete string quartet cycle, performed by the Kreutzer Quartet, as well as two discs of his solo violin music, the complete piano trios and a treasurable issue of piano music crowned by his engaging Piano Concerto; perhaps even more significantly Dutton Epoch have issued six of his first seven symphonies, as well as the two Violin Concertos, while the old Collins Classics EP length single disc of Matthews’ Fourth Symphony has been reissued as part of an NMC compilation. There are strong rumours that Chandos recently recorded the Eighth Symphony for imminent release but in the meantime, stealing a march on its immediate predecessor is his Ninth, on an exceptional Nimbus Alliance disc which also includes a substantial recent Double Concerto and the somewhat more challenging Variations for Strings from 1986.
There is a refreshing modesty about David Matthews’ Ninth; on reaching the milestone of a ninth symphony he seems to be the antithesis of composers who see it as something of a big deal (Of course Shostakovich’s Ninth is the ultimate antidote to this kind of ‘awe’ for the past) In fact the source of the Matthews’ work is a little carol he wrote for his wife, the artist Jenifer Wakelyn. The fact that a piece as substantial as this derived from such an unprepossessing miniature is ample enough evidence of his skill as a composer. Its five movement structure is an exact parallel of the aforementioned Fourth Symphony, with a rapt, elegiac Poco lento e cantabile central movement ( a re-working of ‘A June Song’, the string piece which Matthews’ provided for Volume 1 of Martin Anderson’s poignant and frequently surprising ‘Music for my Love’ Toccata Classics series which commemorates the life of Anderson’s late wife Judit), surrounded by two swift, extended outer movements and two briefer inner scherzi. The wintry, pastoral simplicity of the opening statement of the carol in the initial Allegro moderato evolves into something more imposing, even monumental pretty quickly. The emotional mood and gait of the music may well refract Matthews’ lifelong fascination with both Britten and Mahler and while this is unquestionably English music it’s so expertly made that it conveys universal appeal. A hallmark of this composer is the unabashed confidence of his orchestration; it is both masterly and vivid. He makes a little go a long way. The second movement (a scherzo marked Molto vivace ed energico) is built upon repeated note sequences and projects a brusque and rather Waltonian angst, though a gentler harp and pizzicato-led section affords some brief respite. The slow movement is touching without ever approaching mawkishness and features some fascinating, quiet string writing, notably a gentle solo violin passage at 1:37. Its concluding bird calls over a soft string chord is luminous and entrancing. The weird fourth movement (another scherzo rather ominously marked Ombroso) is a subtle and restrained waltz draped around a pizzicato sequence that somehow recalls the slow movement of Sibelius’ Third Symphony, which is apt considering that the finale of that work inspired Matthews’ concluding Velato, urgente movement here, most obviously in the way that its triumphal concluding theme emerges as if from thin air. Matthews could scarcely imagine that this recent addition to his symphonic canon will receive superior advocacy than that lavished upon it by the indefatigable Kenneth Woods and his English Symphony Orchestra.
In any case, if and when Chandos do get round to releasing their disc, we will all be able to consider David Matthews’ nine symphonies (to date) as a cycle. In my view they constitute an outstanding, if rather unappreciated body of work. For a prolific living symphonist of any nationality to have their entire symphonic output available on disc is unusual, but in the UK I’m pretty sure its unprecedented. (In recent times both Robert Simpson and Peter Maxwell Davies got close) Perhaps any classical listening equivalents of the late Bill Frindall will put me right on this account if I’m wrong.
The Symphony dates from 2016, and the fine Double Concerto from three years earlier. The flowing theme with which it starts has a confident if nostalgic feel, and by the time its taken up by the soloists we’re in territory not too distant from Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante his Little Music for Strings. Matthews writing is elastic, energetic and reassuringly English (or at least squarely in that tradition – I imply no favouritism) There’s a truly delightful passage for the high lying violin at about 4:40 into the first movement Allegro grazioso. Matthews says that the piece tries to distil the essence of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E flat K 364 (for violin and viola), that of collaboration between soloists as opposed to competition. He succeeds admirably – there is nothing flashy or attention-seeking in the writing, and this is especially true in the somewhat terse Lento. The same could be said for the playing: the two soloists, Sara Trickey and Sarah-Jane Bradley hauntingly evoke duetting nightingales at the centre of this panel; it constitutes the still nocturnal centre of this work and projects a fragile, uneasy serenity. The Presto scorrevole finale is lithe, athletic and ambiguous but resolves in a delightful jig for the soloists in another Tippettian flourish before an abrupt, rather shy leave-taking.
The Variations for Strings, Op 40 emerged in 1986. Matthews uses the theme of the Bach chorale Die Nacht ist kommen which itself appears only at the conclusion of the work, before a brief epilogue. The chorale text relates to the onset of night and so Matthews aptly decided on a ‘circadian’ structure reflecting the cycle of the day. The oddly Reich-like opening gestures involve an insistent repetition of the note G, but as the variations proceed one becomes aware of the breadth of Matthews’ imagination, and fascinated by the regular episodes for solo instruments. The means by which the chorale emerges on the back of a searingly intense Adagio sostenuto variation is superbly managed, and chastely affecting. The unity of the work is impressive indeed, and the English String Orchestra excel in its many technical challenges. As a work from David Matthews’ early maturity the Variations may represent something of a tougher nut for some listeners to crack, but I have found that repetition of the piece only intensifies one’s affection for it. Notwithstanding its thorniness this set of Variations amounts to yet another worthy candidate for the burgeoning genre we think of as ‘English String Classics’.
The Nimbus Alliance label seems to be doing great things for a number of British composers at the moment (Philip Sawyers and Gary Carpenter are two recent examples that spring to mind). Their engineers have provided de-luxe sound for all three of these works in two very different West Country churches. I urge any Anglophile listeners unfamiliar with the work of the older Matthews sibling to make his acquaintance without delay. His symphonies are terrific without exception. This compelling issue is as good a place to start as any.
Previous review: John Quinn