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David MATTHEWS (b. 1943)
Symphony No 9, Op 140 (2016) [26:43]
Variations for Strings on Bach’s Chorale Die Nacht ist kommen, Op 40 (1986) [17:49]
Double Concerto for violin, viola and strings, Op 122 (2013) [18:50]
Sara Trickey (violin), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola), English Symphony Orchestra (Symphony), English String Orchestra (Variations, Concerto) / Kenneth Woods
rec. 2018, St George’s, Bristol (sym); The Priory Church, Great Malvern

It was a Chandos disc of three orchestral works that first alerted me to the music of David Matthews. I bought it speculatively – I can’t remember if that was as a result of reading Hubert Culot’s enthusiastic review – and liked what I heard. All of his first seven symphonies have been recorded and I’ve progressively acquired all those discs and have been impressed by what I’ve heard. We haven’t reviewed any of those on MusicWeb International so far as I can see. Dutton Epoch have led the charge with discs of the First, Third and Fifth symphonies (CDLX 7222); the Seventh, coupled with the choral/orchestral Vespers Op 66 (CDLX 7305); and the Second and Sixth symphonies (CDLX 7234). The Fourth symphony was released by NMC (NMC D084). All the works by Matthews that I’ve heard to date have clearly been the product of an excellent composer; one who has a fine, inventive mind, who handles the modern orchestra with flair and assurance, and who puts melody at the foundation of his music.

This new disc from Nimbus Alliance presents what I’m certain are the recorded premieres of three works, two of them for string orchestra. Actually, in the case of the Variations for Strings, my description of it as a work for string orchestra is a bit casual. Kenneth Woods explains in the booklet that the work is actually for 24 solo strings, rather in the manner of Metamorphosen by Strauss. I see from the composer’s website that the minimum requirements are 8/6/4/4/2. The Bach chorale in question, Die Nacht ist kommen, BWV296 is held back until near the end of the piece, rather as Bliss did with the theme in his Meditations on a Theme by John Blow. The Chorale is preceded by eight variations. I must admit that I didn’t find it easy to discern the melodic basis of the variations at a first hearing, such is Matthews’ ingenuity, so the second time I cheated and played first the track which contains the Chorale before settling down to listen to the work in full. Even then, I must admit I found the piece something of a tough nut to crack at times, though I hasten to take responsibility for that myself. Matthews’ writing for his string forces is continually resourceful and interesting. In a booklet note he explains that the reason the Chorale is held back is because it‘s a prayer for a peaceful night so the preceding variations reflect the activities of the day.

Matthews packs a lot into a fairly short time span and the nature of the variations, each of them short, is well differentiated. Thus, for example, the very first one is very vigorous and though the pace of the second one is slower, Matthews revisits the rhythmic energy of the opening variation towards the end of the second one. I was taken by Variation III where the melodic line is given to unison violas and cellos while the violins have high-lying trills. But what grabs the ear just as much in this variation is the jazzy “striding bass”, played pizzicato by the double basses. Variation V has an ethereal violin solo, played with great poise by guest leader Stephen Bryant, while underneath the violin line the Chorale melody is heard in a ghostly canon. Variation VIII is pretty intense yet it subsides most effectively into the Chorale itself. After we’ve heard the Chorale a brief, quick Epilogue recalls the fast, rhythmic style of Variation I. The end is a neat little surprise, which I won’t give away. I found this piece challenging to come to terms with but it’s a very clever, resourceful piece of writing. I should think it’s jolly difficult for the players but Kenneth Woods guides the members of the English String Orchestra through a very assured performance. Woods mentions in the booklet that the work hasn’t been played since the 1980s - its premiere was in 1987 at the hands of the English Chamber Orchestra and Carl Davis. Such neglect is a disgrace and I hope this recording will bring the piece recognition.

The other piece for strings is the Double Concerto. This is a much more recent work and it’s very attractive. Mathews treats the two soloists as partners rather than rivals and the interplay between the two is fascinating. Kenneth Woods rightly refers to the “sunlit lyricism” of the concerto’s opening and, indeed, the prevailing tone of the first movement is lyrical. I like the way that often one soloist takes the lead only for the other one to show the way a few moments later. This music put me in mind of Tippett or Britten. The central slow movement has a lot of rhapsodising for the soloists. In the middle section they imitate nightingales. The last couple of minutes of this movement are especially lovely as the soloists muse reflectively. The finale, which has the unusual marking Presto scorrevole sounds to be rhythmically tricky and intricate at the start but the performance seems very precise and it’s certainly full of vitality. Before long the music acquires a jig-like jollity which persists until the rather sudden end. I enjoyed this concerto. Sara Trickey and Sarah-Jane Bradley are excellent soloists and they’re very well supported by Woods and the English String Orchestra

The Ninth Symphony was premiered by Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra in Bristol on 9 May 2018, the day after this recording was made in the same venue. I had the opportunity to attend the concert and review it but a pre-existing diary commitment made that impossible. I regretted that very much, especially once I saw one or two online reviews of the performance, including an admiring one by a prominent critic whose review had the temptingly provocative headline “How does David Matthews get away with writing symphonies with tunes in them?” I’m delighted, therefore, that a CD has followed so quickly on the heels of the symphony’s public unveiling, giving me the chance to hear it for myself.

The work is scored for double woodwind (with the second player in each section required to double on piccolo or cor anglais and so forth), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion, harp and strings. The work is cast in five movements, the second and fourth of which are scherzos. Mathews writes that the genesis of the symphony was a little carol that he wrote in December 2015 for his wife, the artist, Jenifer Wakelyn, one of whose paintings is reproduced on the booklet cover.

That headline about writing symphonies with tunes certainly appears prescient when one hears the start of the work. The opening is utterly beguiling with woodwind, later joined by horns, playing music in a strongly pastoral vein. That sets the tone for the whole movement, which has a wonderfully open feel to it. It sounds English in that way which is hard to define but instantly recognisable when one hears it. The melodic invention and the development of the melodic material is highly engaging. The movement contains one or two short dramatic passages – for example around 4:00 – but for the most part we hear music of lyric charm and ease. The movement ends with a very lovely, tranquil violin solo which ZoŽ Beyers, the leader of the ESO, delivers most poetically.

The second movement offers a huge contrast, opening with a real burst of energy and at high
velocity. At 2:10 there’s a slower trio section which, if I’m not mistaken, has just a hint of the Blues in its harmonies. Then the scherzo positively erupts again (3:38); at this point there is what sounds like some fiendish writing for the horns as the movement hasten to its close. The slow movement is based on a piece for strings entitled ‘A June Song’ that Matthews contributed in 2015 to the Music for My Love project (review). In revising the piece for inclusion in the symphony Mathews has added woodwind and horns in the middle of the movement. The music is tranquil and richly melodic and right at the end an E-flat clarinet is heard, imitating a song-thrush.

The second scherzo is marked Ombroso (Shadowy). It’s a kind of waltz and because the strings play pizzicato throughout the melodic writing is left to the woodwind and brass. It’s a delightful movement, showing yet again Matthews’ gift for writing melodies. The finale sounds unsettled at first and – at least as I hear it – a little dark. The music rises to a strong climax but then (4:04) things become calmer for a while, leading to a full orchestra apotheosis of the carol melody. The work ends with a succession of big brass chords, followed by emphatic string chords.

David Matthews’ Ninth Symphony is a highly impressive composition. It’s extremely attractive and it’s brilliantly conceived for the orchestra. It’s been well worth the wait to hear this important work which, having made a strong first impression on me, has seemed even better the more I’ve listened to it. The work is splendidly served by Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra, who turn in a highly assured performance.

All three works have been very well recorded and the documentation, which includes essays by both the composer and the conductor, is excellent. This is an important release. I hope that someone – perhaps the present performers – will now record David Matthews’ Eighth so that all his symphonies are available on CD.

John Quinn

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