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David Matthews: Symphony No.9, Variations for Strings & Double Concerto for Violin & Viola



My Ninth Symphony began in a modest way in December 2015 when I wrote a little carol for the solstice for my wife Jenifer, with words about the coming of spring. One day in January I was playing it on the piano and, beginning to improvise, I thought “I can turn this into something bigger, and why not a symphony?” I felt a little uneasy about using such a simple tune for a symphony, particularly with this number, but I was reminded of Nielsen’s Sixth, whose almost naïve opening leads to much more serious events. So my tune, now in C major instead of its original G, began to explore more complex and darker regions as my sonata-form first movement progressed. The coda gently brings back the carol, which moves unexpectedly into A flat major and a solo violin melody at the end.

I began the ‘Variations for Strings’ with two preliminary ideas. The first was that my chosen chorale theme should appear at the end rather than the beginning. Since the words of the chorale are a prayer for a peaceful night, it seemed appropriate that the chorale should be the culmination of the piece, while the variations might be seen as reflecting the activities of the day. The second idea was that the string writing should be as diverse as possible, and that all 24 players should on occasion be used as soloists.

Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola is one of my favourite works of his. I have always loved the special relationship between the two soloists: rather than rivalry, there is a sense of coming together in friendship. I have tried to express the same harmonious qualities in my own Double Concerto. David Matthews

David Matthews: Symphony No.9, Variations for Strings & Double Concerto for Violin & Viola


His ninth symphony, receiving its world premiere on this release, is a kind of summation. Starting with a self-composed carol and extending to a Bach chorale, it represents the best of British creativity in its craftsmanship, its moderation and its lucid rationale. The language, while tonal, is two generations beyond Vaughan Williams and the narrative reflects something of a thinking man’s struggle to maintain a reasoned equilibrium in a threatened universe.

A violin solo in the third movement recalls The Lark Ascending, if only in its distant unattainability. Something of the late symphonies of Malcolm Arnold rises elliptically in the finale. This is a lovely symphony, an altogether personal utterance by a composer who lives and breathes symphonic form, who writes out of love for each and every instrument of the orchestra. Kenneth Woods conducts the sweet serenity that is the English Symphony Orchestra. The five movements are over all too soon in 26 minutes.

A set of variations for string orchestra and a double concerto for violin and viola round off the album. I am saving them for the weekend. This is music to hold close and to savour at leisure. Norman Lebrecht

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.

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.

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. 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. 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.

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. MusicWeb-International