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
The past is never far away in the Ninth Symphony, a work unafraid to be in dialogue with melody, tonality and tradition. It's warmly played, as are the string orchestra Variations and Double Concerto.
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE
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.
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
There is a refreshing modesty about David Matthews’ Ninth; on reaching the milestone of a ninth symphony he seems to be the antithesis of composers who see it as something of a big deal.. In fact the source of the Matthews’ work is a little carol he wrote for his wife, the artist Jenifer Wakelyn. The fact that a piece as substantial as this derived from such an unprepossessing miniature is ample enough evidence of his skill as a composer. Its five movement structure is an exact parallel of the aforementioned Fourth Symphony, with a rapt, elegiac Poco lento e cantabile central movement ( a re-working of ‘A June Song’... surrounded by two swift, extended outer movements and two briefer inner scherzi. The wintry, pastoral simplicity of the opening statement of the carol in the initial Allegro moderato evolves into something more imposing, even monumental pretty quickly. The emotional mood and gait of the music may well refract Matthews’ lifelong fascination with both Britten and Mahler and while this is unquestionably English music it’s so expertly made that it conveys universal appeal. A hallmark of this composer is the unabashed confidence of his orchestration; it is both masterly and vivid. He makes a little go a long way. The second movement (a scherzo marked Molto vivace ed energico) is built upon repeated note sequences and projects a brusque and rather Waltonian angst, though a gentler harp and pizzicato-led section affords some brief respite. The slow movement is touching without ever approaching mawkishness and features some fascinating, quiet string writing, notably a gentle solo violin passage at 1:37. Its concluding bird calls over a soft string chord is luminous and entrancing. The weird fourth movement (another scherzo rather ominously marked Ombroso) is a subtle and restrained waltz draped around a pizzicato sequence that somehow recalls the slow movement of Sibelius’ Third Symphony, which is apt considering that the finale of that work inspired Matthews’ concluding Velato, urgente movement here, most obviously in the way that its triumphal concluding theme emerges as if from thin air. Matthews could scarcely imagine that this recent addition to his symphonic canon will receive superior advocacy than that lavished upon it by the indefatigable Kenneth Woods and his English Symphony Orchestra.
...David Matthews’ nine symphonies (to date) as a cycle. In my view they constitute an outstanding, if rather unappreciated body of work. For a prolific living symphonist of any nationality to have their entire symphonic output available on disc is unusual, but in the UK I’m pretty sure its unprecedented...
The Symphony dates from 2016, and the fine Double Concerto from three years earlier. The flowing theme with which it starts has a confident if nostalgic feel, and by the time its taken up by the soloists we’re in territory not too distant from Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante his Little Music for Strings. Matthews writing is elastic, energetic and reassuringly English (or at least squarely in that tradition – I imply no favouritism). There’s a truly delightful passage for the high lying violin at about 4:40 into the first movement Allegro grazioso. Matthews says that the piece tries to distil the essence of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E flat K 364 (for violin and viola), that of collaboration between soloists as opposed to competition. He succeeds admirably – there is nothing flashy or attention-seeking in the writing, and this is especially true in the somewhat terse Lento. The same could be said for the playing: the two soloists, Sara Trickey and Sarah-Jane Bradley hauntingly evoke duetting nightingales at the centre of this panel; it constitutes the still nocturnal centre of this work and projects a fragile, uneasy serenity. The Presto scorrevole finale is lithe, athletic and ambiguous but resolves in a delightful jig for the soloists in another Tippettian flourish before an abrupt, rather shy leave-taking.
...The chorale text relates to the onset of night and so Matthews aptly decided on a ‘circadian’ structure reflecting the cycle of the day. The oddly Reich-like opening gestures involve an insistent repetition of the note G, but as the variations proceed one becomes aware of the breadth of Matthews’ imagination, and fascinated by the regular episodes for solo instruments. The means by which the chorale emerges on the back of a searingly intense Adagio sostenuto variation is superbly managed, and chastely affecting. The unity of the work is impressive indeed, and the English String Orchestra excel in its many technical challenges. As a work from David Matthews’ early maturity the Variations may represent something of a tougher nut for some listeners to crack, but I have found that repetition of the piece only intensifies one’s affection for it. Notwithstanding its thorniness this set of Variations amounts to yet another worthy candidate for the burgeoning genre we think of as ‘English String Classics’.
The Nimbus Alliance label seems to be doing great things for a number of British composers at the moment (Philip Sawyers and Gary Carpenter are two recent examples that spring to mind). Their engineers have provided de-luxe sound for all three of these works in two very different West Country churches. I urge any Anglophile listeners unfamiliar with the work of the older Matthews sibling to make his acquaintance without delay. His symphonies are terrific without exception. This compelling issue is as good a place to start as any.
- Richard Hanlon
Reviewing the premiere of David Matthews' Ninth Symphony last year a colleague was surprised by the cheerful tunefulness of its fourth movement, thinking "he'll never get away with this" – since symphonies like this one don't appeal to the arts coterie who commission and programme contemporary music. Matthews, now in his 70s, carries on regardless and given the chance, many music lovers would embrace this melodic, vigorous and engaging work. Congratulations then to conductor Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra's "21st Century Symphony Project" for that performance and this recording. Woods conducts the English String Orchestra in Matthews' Variations for Strings, illuminated by guest leader Stephen Bryant's solo in the fifth variation. Sara Trickey and Sarah-Jane Bradley are the soloists in the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola, a delightful piece of concertante team-work with a rhapsodic central movement – a sort of two larks ascending – and a jolly dancing finale.
- Norman Stinchcombe
David Matthews and his older brother Colin, also a composer, were assistants to Britten during the late 60s. Colin is known for his orchestrations of Debussy’s piano music, while David has produced a vast body of work in traditional forms and, as of now, nine symphonies.
Like Shostakovich, Matthews decided against a monumental Ninth. Written in five movements, the work is based on a carol that he composed for his wife. It has dramatic moments, but is generally light in intensity. The delicate fourth movement, Ombroso, pits dancelike woodwinds against pizzicato strings, while the work finishes in a flood of major key warmth. Matthews is a genuine symphonist and squeezes every drop of developmental interest out of his theme.
The Variations for Strings on Bach’s Chorale Die Nacht ist kommen date from 1986. Matthews’ English roots are clear in this lovely work, although he stretches the pastoral mood to incorporate a jazzy ‘walking bass’ in the third variation. Like Britten’s Lachrymae, he places the chorale theme at the end, adding only a brief coda. The Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Strings is another attractive work in the same vein, where string soloists Trickey and Bradley show genuine rapport. Performances and sound quality are first rate.
- Phillip Scott