David MATTHEWS (b.1943)
String Quartet No. 5 Op. 36 (1984-85) [17.55]
String Quartet No. 12 Op. 114 (2004-10) [43.10]
Kreutzer Quartet
rec. 25 June 2010, St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Church, Tring (5); 26 October 2011, St. John The Baptist Church, Aldbury (12)
String Quartets - Volume 2
If David Matthews Fifth Quartet is a compact masterwork with its three joined movements then the Twelfth achieves similar mastery but on a vast canvas full of concentration, power and compassion. This is music of a fully rounded man and musician who has something he wants to say about life. I hope that his quartets have more luck in performance than the fifteen of Robert Simpson, all recorded by Hyperion, whilst he was alive. They are now seemingly forgotten and ignored. All power to Toccata for taking up this project.
So what of these two works?
The high violin opening of the Fifth Quartet and the ‘fugal-type’ response from the second violin, and later from the cello, set the almost atonal mood. This haunts the entire work and also establishes and sustains a tense and probing atmosphere. Tough though this music may be it remains approachable. It compromises neither technically nor musically. You need to concentrate and not mind the challenges. The opening Lento cantando grows in intensity with an ostinato figure in the cello. This opening, it seems from the composer’s own fascinating notes, grew out of a rather unlikely Violin Sonatina (1975) but the work as a whole was not finished for another nine years. The force of the first movement is not really relieved by the Vivace energico which comes second but which is all part of the sound-world heard in the middle of the first movement. The speed in fact quickens during its four minutes and at no point is a tonality settled upon. The third movement, which segues out of the Vivace, is marked Largo sostenuto. It, to a certain extent, comes to terms with the cataclysmic mood of the earlier music but ends inconclusively and quite disturbed.
The Twelfth Quartet last over forty minutes. In his notes Matthews says that he has “always been a tonal composer” but when some of you hear the Fourth Quartet you might disagree. On the other hand when you listen to the Twelfth you will undoubtedly feel that the classical and romantic background that the composer loves comes to the fore. When you read about this work you might feel that it’s a bit “of a dog’s dinner”. Its unique, experimental form seems, on the surface at least, rather like a gangly teenager, somewhat awkward. Let me explain further.
It opens with a mysterious Prelude followed by an energetic fugue. Then there is the first of a series of dances, a Tango in fact, written a few years earlier for piano. Then comes a brief Cadenza for solo violin which leads into a Minuet and then another duet cadenza fading into a gorgeous Serenade and a third Cadenza. After this comes the slow movement, the emotional heart of the work. This is marked Canto Grazioso, the longest movement. It segues into a bright and dancing finale. The first and last movements also include birdsong, British birds, partially in honour of the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (also published by Faber) who has also written several string quartets in which birdsong is a regular feature. There are, I think, fifteen Sculthorpe quartets. He is a composer Matthews much admires. Some of Matthews’ Twelfth Quartet was composed in Australia in the fun-loving town of Fremantle, which, as I recall, after a visit a few years ago is indeed a place in which one can really be happy, as Sculthorpe says about his 11th Quartet. This is reflected in Matthews’ finale. You will hear passages reminiscent of Tippett of whom Matthews has written a short appreciative book. Schoenberg’s masterly First Quartet serves as Matthews’ model. Yet this eclectic piece works quite convincingly. For myself, I wish it was a little shorter but the form gels well with the material. One can see the piece as in four movements. Ion this case the Minuets take the place of a second movement Scherzando, as the composer suggests, followed by the slow third movement with the final Minuetto acting as an introduction to the finale. It serves to link a dark mood into the brighter ending.
The Kreutzer Quartet are the dedicatees of these quartets and have worked for some time with Matthews and his music. If they can’t achieve the composer’s intentions who can? Yet interpretatively, one has an instinctive feeling that this music could be taken in other directions if ever the pieces are taken up in the years ahead. Perhaps these recordings of the composer’s complete quartets might encourage students, for example, to attempt them. Sadly that has not happened with Robert Simpson to my knowledge or to Elizabeth Maconchy whose twelve quartets are rarely played but again have been recorded complete (Unicorn-Kanchana reissued on Forum).
To date there are twelve string quartets all published by Faber. Volume 1 in this invaluably rewarding series is reviewed here.
Look out for more in this series and meanwhile try to get to know the works we now have. The journey is well worthwhile.

Gary Higginson


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