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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/Kenneth Woods
English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods (Symphony 5)
rec. 8 June 2019, St Jude’s on the Hill, London (Symphony 5); 14 January 2020, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. DDD

The 21st Century Symphonies Project which Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra have embarked upon is an ambitious and important enterprise to foster the composition – and performance and recording – of new symphonies. The first fruits have already been put before the public: the earlier works were Philip Sawyers’ highly impressive Third Symphony, for which I share Nick Barnard’s admiration (review), and David Matthews’ equally noteworthy Ninth Symphony (review). Matthew Taylor’s Fifth Symphony, which here receives its first recording, is the latest composition in the series.

Also making its debut on disc is the Fourth Symphony. Taylor wrote it in memory of his old friend John McCabe (1939-2015). He explains in a valuable booklet essay about the music that the symphony is impacted by the music of two composers with whom McCabe had a strong affinity: Haydn and Nielsen. Frankly, even if I hadn’t read that I think I would have picked up those references, especially to Nielsen, just by listening. The work is cast in a single movement but within that movement are three clearly discernible sections, movements-within-a-movement, if you will. The first is marked Giubiloso and anyone familiar with Nielsen’s ‘Inextinguishable’ Symphony will surely recognise an affinity.

The music opens explosively – the timpani are very prominent – and in a very extrovert frame of mind; the composer freely admits to “an attempt to create a Nielsenesque sweep” in these pages: I think he’s succeeded. There’s an abundance of rhythmic energy, which makes the music exhilarating to listen to. At 2:26, the tumultuous opening gives way to a more delicately scored episode, though the delicacy doesn’t mean that momentum has been sacrificed. Hereabouts, there’s lots of tinkling tuned percussion and twittering woodwind writing to enjoy. Indeed, this is as good a place as any to say that the work as a whole evidences assured and inventive use of orchestral colour. It sounds to me as if another Scandinavian composer exerts some influence a little later on: from about 6:30 to 8:12 there’s a passage for strings which seems to me to carry (beneficially) echoes of Sibelius. When the rest of the orchestra re-joins the strings, the brass and timpani are very prominent and the music teems with energy and positivity. This leads to a mighty climax (10:30), across which the horns ring out thrillingly. Thereafter, the music quickly winds down to a subdued conclusion in which the harp is to the fore.

Without a break the Adagio teneramente follows. This is a movement of no little feeling. The predominant mood, I think, is one of quite intense melancholy and Taylor emphasises this by the prominence which he gives to certain instruments best equipped the illustrate that tendency: violas, oboe and, not least, bassoon. The latter has a plangent solo (2:58-3:31), accompanied most imaginatively by harp and tuned percussion. The pages that follow include some extended passages of very intense writing for the string section. At times they’re partnered by brass, to excellent effect. In the last few minutes, we hear a series of solo lines, give to a variety of instruments and always sparsely accompanied. Eventually, a solo clarinet brings the movement to a close. The spirit of Haydn hovers over the concluding Finale buffa. At once we hear what the composer dubs a “jolly, impish tune”, which is introduced by the cellos. Much play is made of this material in music that is vivacious and witty. Along the way there’s a tribute to Brahms in the form of a fine melody, which once again falls first to the cello section (1:34). This final section of the symphony which is considerably shorter than the preceding two, overflows with joie de vivre. In the last two or three minutes Taylor revisits material from the symphony’s opening. As the symphony draws to its close exultant brass and combative timpani give us a further reminder of Nielsen’s Fourth. I had expected a tumultuous and emphatic ending but instead Taylor springs something of a surprise: the music ends abruptly and all that is left is the decaying sound of a suspended cymbal. This is a most impressive and articulate symphony and its credentials are enhanced by a terrific performance by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, galvanised by Kenneth Woods.

The Fifth Symphony is a different proposition, not least because Taylor conceived it for much smaller forces. Gone is the harp and the percussion – with the notable exception of timpani – and the string section is pared back. Indeed, I think I’m right in saying that the orchestral forces are similar to those specified for Beethoven’s Fifth. The work is cast in four clearly defined movements. The opening Allegro is characterised by white-hot energy from the outset. In mid-movement there’s a lighter passage in which woodwind solos are prominent, but though the character of the music may be lighter, neither the pace nor the underlying sense of purpose has diminished. From about 5:00 the music is back at full power and the lighter middle section soon seems almost a distant memory, though in temporal terms it’s only a couple of minutes since we left that episode behind. The movement’s end is extraordinary. From 6:56 everything is dominated by hugely potent timpani and the movement ends with a dramatic solo for the drums with other instruments only permitted to join in the last sec chord. The ESO’s timpanist, Emmanuel Joste is a force to be reckoned with at this point.

The remaining three movements are all tributes to people close to the composer, all of whom died in 2018. The first two are short intermezzi. The first of these is an Allegretto misterioso dedicated to the memory of a composer, Cy Lloyd who was, Taylor tells us, a gregarious character but one also capable of gentleness. In this short movement the music is much lighter in tone of voice and the textures are lighter too. This contrast is beneficial after the tumult of the opening movement. The following Allegretto tranquillo is for Angela Simpson, the wife of the composer Robert Simpson. This brief movement is scored for strings and Kenneth Woods aptly describes the music as being “as delicate as a glass thread”. The writing for strings is really well imagined. At 2:57, just before the close, Taylor introduces a solo flute and this addition of an extra textural dimension is a masterstroke.

Taylor says that he had long wanted to end a symphony with an Adagio and he achieved his ambition in this symphony. It’s a long movement – at 12:32 it plays for nearly half the length of the symphony. It’s a tribute to the composer’s mother, Brigid but I don’t think it was conceived as a memorial: Taylor tells us that she died as he was composing the final pages. Nonetheless, one might be forgiven for thinking that the music had been inspired by his mother’s death because it’s a deeply felt and very serious piece of writing. The movement is constructed around two paragraphs. First, we hear very broad, dark writing for strings to which trombones add tonal weight from time to time. Then, just before 2:30 the second paragraph arrives. In this, woodwind solo lines are to the fore; the texture lightens but the mood is no lighter. These are the two musical building blocks on which Taylor constructs an extended and impressive musical argument. Over time the tension increases incrementally and especially from the point (8:10) where the horn section enters the fray imposingly. The movement’s climax is capped by a revisitation of the first movement’s timpani solo (9:49). This emphatic passage is short-lived, however; the drums die away, prefacing a much more tranquil passage in which the predominant feature is the sound of an elegiac quartet of cellos. Just when you think that this will be the end of the symphony, Taylor springs one last surprise with a soft, black and bleak chord of E-flat minor, played by the trombones and timpani. It’s with this quiet but almost nihilistic sound that the symphony ends. The Fifth Symphony is impressive, inventive and eloquent. The recording was made just before Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance of the work and it’s hard to imagine that Matthew Taylor could have received better advocacy for his new work.

In between the two big works for full orchestra, Woods and the BBCNOW offer a short and very appealing work for string orchestra. It’s actually an arrangement for string orchestra of the second movement of Taylor’s 6th String Quartet. I’ve not heard the quartet but the music seems to me to work extremely well when painted on this larger canvass. Effectively, the piece describes an arch. It begins tenderly, in a subdued vein, but gradually the music builds to an impassioned climax from which it then recedes. We then hear a return to the opening material before the piece achieves a very hushed close with a solo cello speaking as a primus inter pares.

This was my first exposure to the music of Matthew Taylor. I was impressed. Here is a composer who definitely has something to say and who communicates very effectively and directly with his audience. The music is tonal but employs dissonance to excellent effect. The music is thoroughly convincing at all times and I was struck by the assurance with which Taylor writes for the orchestra. On this evidence, he has a fine ear for texture and colour.

I’m sure that the music’s cause is helped greatly by the expert performances that are turned in by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the English Symphony Orchestra. Kenneth Woods is clearly committed to Taylor’s music, as is evident from the strength of conviction in the performances and the attention to detail which allows the nuances of the scoring to come through.

Simon Fox-Gál was in charge of the engineering of these recordings and he’s done a fine job; the sound has impact, good perspectives and fine detail. The documentation is ideal for the introduction of music that will be new to all but a handful of listeners. The booklet contains excellent and enthusiastic essays about the music by Kenneth Woods and by Matthew Taylor. There’s also an appreciation of Taylor by his fellow composer James Francis Brown.

John Quinn

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