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David MATTHEWS (b.1943)
Music for Solo Violin - Volume One
Three Studies, Op.39 (1986) [10:50]
Fifteen Fugues, Op.88 (1998-2002) [36:48]
Winter Journey, Op.32 (1982) [13:10]
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin)
rec. August 2010, Aldbury Parish Church, Hertfordshire
TOCCATA TOCC 0152 [60:48]

The centrepiece of the first volume of this survey of David Matthews’ complete works for solo violin is the Op.88 series of fifteen fugues. This was written between 1998 and 2002 and provides a remarkable sequence of movements, each individually dedicated to a named fellow-composer or friend, set to test the technique of even the most dedicated of violinists. Lest this gives the wrong impression, all technical difficulties are accompanied by resilient musical qualities which have resulted in a set that offers challenges both digital and expressive.
Such challenges include tonal unsettlement, a Bach-inspired four part fugue, a pizzicati study, the clever insinuation of birdsong (blackbird and cuckoo), the use of scordatura and much opportunity for expressive depth - either reserved or more pressing. The technical demands placed on the performer are strong, but so too is the necessity for finding the right ‘tone’ to communicate those fugues that rely more on the sustenance of mood and texture. In every respect Peter Sheppard Skærved, to whom the tenth fugue is dedicated, proves a fearless ambassador bringing his taut tone to bear allied to a typically close-up church acoustic, a favoured sound for him, as much in Tartini solo works as in contemporary Matthews. It catches the resinous commitment of his playing. Given that performances of the whole cycle will be few, the alert fiddle player may want to select from the fifteen. They could choose the Fourth, an introspective Lento or the succeeding fifth, a fiendish-sounding affair. The fugue dedicated to Judith Bingham is a rather musing, rocking one whilst that written for Sheppard Skærved - which was the first to be written in 1998 - is stately and elegant, largely abjuring fireworks. For his brother Colin, an equally well-known composer, Matthews has written a tremolo two-part fugue. The cycle ends with a very pleasing study for his wife.
The Three Studies were written in 1985 for the following year’s Carl Flesch International violin competition. These test the aspiring violinist through their concentrated technical demands, and draw on a variety of requirements. The rapid time-signature changes in the second piece don’t quite obscure the fact that Matthews has inveigled a reminiscence of The Two Ravens. This piece really needs dextrous but supple responses from the performer as well as mastery of bowing, whereas the last of the three is slow and intense, building through an inexorable ratcheting of the tension. Composed earlier in the decade, in 1982, Winter Journey is inspired by Schubert’s Winterreise from which Matthews briefly quotes two songs. Its 11 sections progress over 13 minutes and explore regions of expressive intensity that are both fragmentary and more phrasally lucid. The result, not least because of the tonal movement the music makes, is both unsettling and poignant and represents a most compelling statement.
Once again Sheppard Skærved proves to be an intermediary of great acumen. When it comes to tone production he is not prepared to sacrifice acidic for silken if it better suits the music’s message. He is fearless in this close-up, full-on recording and has written some fascinating notes as well.
Jonathan Woolf