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Jonathan Woolf
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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
“Italian” Concerto in F major, BWV 971 (1735) [12:38]
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV903 (?1717-23) [12:36]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 10, in G, Op. 14 No. 2 (1798-99) [16:40]
Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28 “Pastorale” (1801) [23:39]
Piano Sonata No. 21, in C, Op. 53 “Waldstein” (1803-04) [24:43]
Piano Sonata No. 23, in F minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata” (1804-05) [25:07]
Denis Matthews (piano)
rec. 1952-53, EMI Studio No.3. Abbey Road, London
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR1622-23 [65:37 + 49:52]

The Bach and Beethoven recordings here derive from three mono LPs recorded in the years 1952-53. They reveal Denis Matthews, as have almost all his recordings, as a model interpreter; thoughtful, sensitive, unostentatious, devoid of point-making, tonally attractive and furthermore well served by his recording engineers.

The Italian Concerto and Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue date from February 1952. The play of left and right hand is acutely judged; tempos are unrushed but retain sufficient buoyancy of movement. The Andante of the Italian Concerto is sensitively voiced, the finale lively but not courting exuberance. The companion work is articulated with great precision and thoroughly accomplished. Not for nothing two years earlier had Matthews and Ronald Smith collaborated with Edwin Fischer in their oft-reissued recording of Bach’s Concerto in C for Three Keyboards and Orchestra.

The remainder of this twofer is devoted to a sequence of Beethoven piano sonatas. EMI clearly had no intention of recording Matthews in the whole cycle, but they were keen to capture him in a number of named sonatas, amongst others, and the results prove consistently persuasive. Op.14/2 is notable for its freedom from gestures, its clarity, naturalness of expression and characterisation whilst the Pastorale, Op.28 is at its finest in the sympathetic directness of the Andante.

The Waldstein dates from May 1953. Like everything here, it was recorded in Abbey Road Studio No.3 and the performance shares with the others precisely those qualities of thoughtful directness that mark out Matthews’ best qualities. He is never mechanical, and he always sounds right; phrasing is never subject to idiosyncrasy or whimsy. The Appassionata was recorded the day before the Pastorale, on 7 January 1953, and it too reinforces that Matthews relied not on qualities of personalisation and bravura but on eloquence and digital precision; on balance, in other words. He remains here an arbiter of musical discretion and a performer of great judgement.

Forgotten Records’ transfers are themselves highly sympathetic and the discs, as is customary, come without notes but with a few web links. It’s almost always easier to write at length about outsize monarchs of the keyboard whose caprices and stylistic extravagances provide compelling evidence of their individuality. It’s far harder to write about truthfully musical exponents of the repertoire, such as Matthews, whose discretion can be misread as reserve.

Jonathan Woolf

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