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David MATTHEWS (b. 1943)
A Vision of the Sea
Toward Sunrise, Op 117 (2011-12) [9:42]
Symphony No 8, Op 131 (2014) [28:47]
Sinfonia, Op 67 (1995, rev. 2015) [8:18]
A Vision of the Sea, Op 125 (2013) [20:55]
BBC Philharmonic/Jac van Steen
rec. November & December 2017, MediaCityUK, Salford, UK.

Just last year, reviewing the first recording of David Matthews’ Ninth Symphony (2016), which is his most recent symphony to date, I commented that all of his previous symphonies had been committed to disc with the exception of the Eighth. I expressed the hope that a recording of the Eighth would be made in due course. Little did I know that such a recording was already ‘in the can’: here it is.

The Eighth Symphony was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic. Matthews wrote it in 2014 and the orchestra gave the premiere the following year. It is cast in three movements. The first movement opens with an Andante introduction which gives way (1:10) to Allegro energico. The fast music lives up to the tempo marking; not only is it fast but it is suffused with energy, in which respect exuberant horns set the tone right at the start. The orchestral textures are very busy and much of the music is loud. Even more importantly, I think, the tone of voice is consistently positive. This exciting music is delivered with stunning assurance by the BBC Philharmonic. Until the last couple of minutes, the music scarcely attains any repose – and I don’t make that point critically – instead, all we hear is vigour and confidence. In the last few pages, however, a much calmer mood is attained, and that’s shrewd on Matthews’ part since it prepares the listener for the slow movement, even though there’s a clear break between the movements.

Marked Adagio, con molto sentimento, the symphony’s central movement – and its longest in duration – is an elegy which, the composer tells us, became a memorial for a composer friend who died while Matthews was writing it. The opening is a memorable, thoughtful passage for strings. The music that follows is extremely eloquent and, clearly, deeply-felt. At 4:37 the violins commence a slow-moving fugue for the string section. Initially, this is subdued and melancholy but gradually it grows in intensity until (at 7:14) the horns add their weight, ushering in a towering full-orchestra return to the movement’s opening. At 8:46 quiet lower strings lead the way into a hushed, sorrowful coda which closes this deeply impressive movement.

There could scarcely be a greater contrast than the Allegretto giocoso finale. Here, Matthews offers us an unbroken stream of happy, high-spirited music. The movement dances along, impelled by strong rhythmic energy. In the booklet, the composer staunchly defends his approach, arguing – correctly, I believe – that whilst it is perhaps inevitable that most major art today is pessimistic in tone, we surely need the lighter side too. How right he is! He says that some may think the melodic ideas deployed in this movement “na´ve”. All I can say is that I don’t. In fact, this movement is attractive from start to finish. The melodic material is highly appealing and is presented amid a riot of orchestral colour; here David Matthews reminds us – if we needed reminding – that he is a master orchestrator. Somehow, the crisp pay-off chord with which the movement ends seems just the right touch.

David Matthews’ Eighth Symphony is a significant achievement and this magnificent performance by the BBC Philharmonic and Jac van Steen presents it in the best possible light. I’m delighted that this recording means that all nine Matthews symphonies can now be heard on CD.

The Sinfonia began life in 1995 as a commission from the English Chamber Orchestra to mark their 35th anniversary. Matthews tells us that he was dissatisfied with the piece at the time but it was not until 2015 that he undertook a comprehensive revision of the score. This revision entailed the excision of some two minutes of music and an expansion of the orchestration. After an Andante introduction which includes many short solo opportunities for various instruments to shine, the main body of the piece (from 2:57) is an Allegro. This section is introduced by jagged orchestral chords and a flamboyant timpani part. Indeed, the timpanist plays a very prominent role for the rest of the piece and the BBC Philharmonic’s timpanist, Paul Turner seizes the chance, offering playing that is thrillingly dynamic and incisive. Matthews’ music is full of energy – as is the performance – and Sinfonia impresses as an exciting and entertaining piece.

I’ve deliberately left the outer works on the programme to last because, as we shall see, they are linked.

David Matthews says that, if obliged to do so, he would describe Toward Sunrise as a ‘tone poem’. Its genesis came when he heard a recording by scientists at Sheffield University of the sound of the sun. However, the real creative spur was his wish to write some music that Barrie Gavin, the dedicatee of the piece, could use to accompany a film. Matthews relates that Gavin sent him a good deal of landscape footage, which fired his imagination, though it’s not clear from the notes whether or not an audio-visual collaboration came to final fruition. (I looked on the website of the publishers, Faber Music and in a programme note there David Matthews says that the film was, at the time of writing, in the process of final editing.) Apparently, most of the footage was shot in the Welsh border region, near Presteigne. The composer tells us that he “imagined the piece starting in late afternoon and proceeding through dusk and a short episode of night to a dawn at the end”. In keeping with the primary tempo marking, Lento e quieto, much of the music is slow-moving, though there are a number of episodes in which faster-moving figurations play against the slow background. The scoring is consistently inventive and atmospheric and the listener is quickly drawn into Matthews’ sound world. I found the music impressive and imaginatively scored throughout, but especially from about 7:25. At this point a sepulchral contrabassoon, joined by low-pitched gongs (the effect of which is like hearing a very deep temple bowl), lay the foundations for a huge final climax which depicts the sunrise. The sunrise is majestic and powerful and provides a fitting conclusion to the work.

A Vision of the Sea, the work which gives the album its title, is another BBC Philharmonic commission; they premiered it at the 2013 BBC Proms. It’s a symphonic poem, cast as a single movement which is divided into four clear sections; helpfully, these sections are separately tracked on the CD. Much of the music was written at the composer’s home in the Kent seaside town of Deal, so the sight and sounds of the sea were very much in his mind. At the start of the first section, Poco lento e calmo, David Matthews tells us that he included an orchestral transcription of a short piano piece Cap Gris-Nez, which he wrote in 2012. This opening, he says, evokes a calm sea with herring gulls circling overhead – their cries are clearly mimicked in the woodwind. The music is slow and, to my ears, highly evocative. Later in the section, Matthews depicts with equal success “a gently moving sea”. Seamlessly, the music moves into the longest section of the piece, a scherzo episode marked Vivacissimo. Initially, the textures are quite light, suggesting to me light breezes and white-capped little waves. However, it’s not long before the energy in the music becomes more forceful, suggesting somewhat choppier waters. Even so, I hear occasional episodes that seem more playful. In the last couple of minutes of this scherzo the power of the music increases, leading inexorably into the third section, Maestoso. This revisits, on full orchestra, the material of the opening section. The music is potent and majestic, including gale-force interjections from the timpani. Here is a salutary reminder in music that one must always respect the sea’s power. The second half of the section, commencing at around 2:40, is what Matthews describes as a “stern chaconne”; this builds to a massive chordal climax. The last section, marked Lento, opens with “a portrait of a pre-dawn, calm seascape”; once again we hear, through the medium of woodwind, the cries of circling gulls. Then at 2:52 the growl of the contrabassoon heralds the sunrise. This is a re-orchestrated version of the comparable passage in Toward Sunrise. The positioning of these two works at either end of the CD’s programme is a neat piece of symmetry. This depiction of sunrise makes a marvellously affirmative end not just to A Vision of the Sea but to the programme as a whole. A Vision of the Sea is another highly impressive composition.

I’ve long been an admirer of the orchestral music of David Matthews and all four pieces on this disc serve only to reinforce that admiration Here is a composer who writes music that connects vividly with the audience. He is a master of the modern symphony orchestra for which he writes with invention and great imagination. In the booklet Jac van Steen describes Matthews’ orchestral music as “demanding to play but utterly rewarding”. Van Steen is no stranger to Matthews’ music: he has recorded previously In the Dark Time and Chaconne (NMCD067) and a disc coupling the Second and Sixth symphonies (Dutton Epoch CDLX7234); in the booklet David Matthews expresses his admiration for this conductor’s work with his music. The BBC Philharmonic plays superbly throughout. Their performances are enhanced by magnificent recorded sound. Producer Mike George and engineer Stephen Rinker present the orchestra in sound which has genuine presence, great impact and an abundance of detail. The icing on the cake is an excellent set of notes by the composer himself.

Though Signum don’t make the claim explicitly, all these must be premiere recordings. This splendid disc is a notable addition to David Matthews’ discography. Admirers of this fine composer will need no prompting from me to acquire this disc but collectors who have yet to experience the music of David Matthews will find it a very good place to start.

John Quinn


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