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Matthew TAYLOR (b. 1964)
Symphony No 4, Op 54 (2015-16) [29:34]
Romanza for strings, Op 36a (2006) [7:09]
Symphony No 5, Op 59 (2018) [27:10]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Sy 4, Romanza), English Symphony Orchestra (Sy 5)/Kenneth Woods
rec. June 2019, St Jude’s on the Hill, London; January 2020, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales

As part of my prep for reviewing this disc I reacquainted myself with the recordings of Matthew Taylor’s first three symphonies (Nos 1 and 3 are paired with Taylor’s Horn Concerto on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7178 performed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the composer; No 2 features on Toccata Classics TOCC 0175 - review; it’s played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Garry Walker and coupled with Sarah-Jane Bradley’s outstanding account of Taylor’s unusual Viola Concerto). Revisiting this exceptional trilogy reinforced my frustration at the dearth of hours in the day, weeks in the month and years in a lifetime; there’s some fantastic music on my shelves which rarely gets a look in, and Taylor’s symphonic output appears to be primus inter pares. The terse and concise Symphony No 1 ‘Sinfonia Brevis’ is impressive on its own terms but seems even more so given that it was produced by a twenty-year-old. Taylor was taught by Robert Simpson and his influence certainly cuts through the work, although its hazily meandering central section offers a glimpse of Taylor’s own personality which comes more to the fore in the Symphony No 2 of 1991 (he revised it in 1997 and 2008). This is a big statement (at just under 40 minutes) in four movements; its gaunt, profound opening offers up few hints at what will follow. Timbral reflections of Tippett, Holloway and perhaps William Mathias (not least in Taylor’s confident and attractive deployment of tuned percussion) come and go, but the cogency of the argument and the sheer inevitability of the content ensure that this incident-packed, colourful work flies by, and at its jagged conclusion one is in little doubt that Taylor’s own voice is the one which predominates. The Symphony No 3 of 2004 is also substantial but more concentrated in utterance than its imposing predecessor, its half-hour arc deriving most convincingly from opening fanfare-like material which acts as a familiar landmark along its course.

Listening to these three symphonies again fills me with considerable guilt for not having made the effort earlier – I am readily drawn to new music which displays both clarity of expression and satisfying formal architecture and Taylor unfailingly projects these characteristics – so quite apart from anything else I am grateful to Nimbus for presenting me with the opportunity for reappraisal by releasing this superb disc which pairs the next two instalments of Taylor’s burgeoning cycle. The Symphony No 5 forms part of the English Symphony Orchestra’s innovative 21st Century Symphony project which to date has resulted in exceptional contributions from David Matthews and Philip Sawyers. It is no surprise that the driving force behind the initiative is the indefatigable American conductor Kenneth Woods, and once again he is at at the helm of the ESO for that work, whilst he directs the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a performance of Taylor’s Symphony No 4 and a poignant Romanza for strings.

As my colleague John Quinn has observed, the symphonies of Carl Nielsen are clearly important to Matthew Taylor (as they were to Robert Simpson) but although the spirit of the Dane is present in the Symphony No 4 it is never allowed to dominate. It informs the progress and the feel of the work, but the content per se is very much Taylor’s own. The symphony acts as a memorial to Taylor’s late friend John McCabe and is dedicated to his widow Monica. He describes it as his ‘friendliest’ symphony to date, a characterisation borne out by colourful washes of harp and percussion, lucid woodwind writing, eerie muted trumpets and wry descending string glissandi that decorate the airy surfaces of the opening Giubiloso movement. Its quieter central section is rather gnomic, its mysteries underlined by quiet timpani and strange, nocturnal string rustlings, although these evaporate most appealingly when the outgoing material of the opening returns toward the movement’s powerful conclusion, which leads via a haunting bridge passage for solo harp into the central Adagio teneramente. Here the melodic shapes which have dominated the symphony thus far are maintained, slowed down and developed. This movement is more serious in tone and intent; the glittering textures are used more sparingly. Harp and solo woodwinds blend in elaborate combinations that again recall Tippett although it’s fair to say that Taylor seems to be striving for a pensive mood as opposed to a gloomy one. By now this composer is extremely skilled at manipulating, elaborating and varying his basic materials to create an impression of constant metamorphosis, an approach which in turn produces a most gripping listening experience. I love the way the music is gradually pared down in this movement (from about 7:00) to skeletal interplay between muted brass and low winds. This winding down has been fastidiously worked out– it requires remarkable levels of attention and concentration on the part of the players and Taylor’s intentions have been ideally realised in this performance. The buoyancy of the symphony’s opening returns with the puckish tune which kicks off the finale, a figure which proves remarkably resilient in the face of the rapidly escalating distractions thrown up elsewhere by the orchestra. The conclusion is an enjoyable white-knuckle ride which ends rather abruptly. The playing of the BBC NOW is terrific – their tangible commitment a mark of their palpable enjoyment of this richly entertaining score. The Nimbus sound is characteristically warm and full.

Taylor’s Romanza for strings provides an interlude between the symphonies. It’s an arrangement of the second movement of Taylor’s String Quartet No 6, and the composer tells us in the note that it was originally written as a gift for his wife-to-be and first performed at their wedding. The wedge-like melody on which it is based is most attractive and Taylor tweaks it most tastefully as the piece unfolds, carefully balancing tenderness and passion, avoiding any kind of mawkishness or cosy sentimentality, The dense polyphony at its central climax is sensitively disentangled, eventually pitting a piquant solo group against the ripieno strings, until a quiet, ambiguous chord is all that remains, and the rapt contemplations of a solo cello. The beauty of this Romanza is far from obvious, which proves to be the piece’s greatest strength.

For the Symphony No 5 Taylor has adopted a four movement design, albeit an unusual one. The opening Allegro is a furious Beethovenian sonata movement, whose rigour and seriousness Robert Simpson would most certainly have appreciated. It benefits from being thrillingly played by the ESO and vividly engineered. Low strings rasp and pulse. Limpid woodwind solos provide timbral and emotional relief, but even they seem touched by an undercurrent of mellow darkness. The movement’s most telling feature is its inexorable momentum. Woods lures some ripe hues from his modestly sized orchestra – no tuned percussion here! The timpanist (Emmanuel Joste) has his work cut out at the death – he makes a fair din to which the Nimbus engineers have done full justice. The two curt central movements are little Allegrettos for orchestral groups of genuinely chamber dimensions. Both are intended as elegies triggered by the passing of two of Matthew Taylor’s dearest friends. The second panel recalls the composer and teacher Cy Lloyd – it employs a small string group which at times is reduced to a quartet, intersecting wind and brass solos provide surprisingly varied timbral contrasts and blend most autumnally. The third movement is a delightfully muted tribute to Robert Simpson’s late widow Angela. The darting ESO strings seem to be carried on the slipstream of a soft breeze – in its last thirty seconds a densely skittering passage before the entry of the flute (the sole non-stringed interloper) briefly recalls Sibelius’s Sixth. The insistent flute line creeps under one’s skin. The finale is a darkly profound Adagio in which Taylor pays an apt and moving tribute to his late mother Brigid, who passed away just as he was completing the symphony. It amounts to almost half of the duration of the work as a whole. In his note he cites the examples of the Adagios in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Bruckner’s Seventh as structural, and possibly emotional blueprints. It seems to me that the very real power of this music lies in the utmost care behind its conception and the resulting restraint in its execution. Taylor’s writing for the brass in general (and the trombones in particular) is graceful and telling. More visceral music begins to appear at about 6:20 with the ominous entry of timpani – a flavour of what’s to come. The momentum begins to build unrelentingly. Can there possibly be either beauty or consolation in this kind of bleakness? In both cases the answer is a resounding “yes”. Another brief and violent timpani riff triggers a temporary retreat, solo strings and pastel shades before the conclusive understated brass chord.

Enigmatic is an overused word in the realm of music criticism but it most certainly applies to this compelling, unusual symphony. To all intents and purposes in the context of this disc Taylor’s Fifth Symphony offers an emotional counterbalance to its more affirmative predecessor, whilst these two substantial utterances are separated by an attractive interlude designed for a positive life event in which Taylor has skilfully avoided easy sentimentality. Performances throughout convey the exceptional commitment of players and conductor alike. The detailed recording and comprehensive liner notes (featuring introductions by both Woods and Taylor as well as an appreciation from Taylor’s colleague James Francis Brown) seal the deal. By now Taylor’s 6th Symphony, written to celebrate the Malcolm Arnold centenary has been recorded by the BBC for broadcast later this year. One suspects it will turn up on disc before long; it is likely to confirm this critic’s view of Matthew Taylor as one of the two or three most important living British symphonists.
Richard Hanlon
Previous review: John Quinn

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