Feature Review – Inner Voices: The Music of Jean Sibelius and David Matthews [Kings Place, London, 5-7 May 2012]

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

Hall One, Kings Place, 90 York Way, King’s Cross, London

Thursday, 5 May to Saturday, 7 May, 2012

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) in 1910

Once seen as a bastion of tradition, then marginalised as a figure of outdated certainties and now designated a mentor by seemingly every composer of consequence, Sibelius has become a virtual barometer of changing musical and aesthetic priorities – his output available as never before through commercial recordings (notably the 13-volume Complete Edition recently completed by BIS), but its greater part at best intermittently and at worst hardly ever encountered in live performance. Hence the importance of such events as Inner Voices – a three-day series of recitals organised by Edward Clark (President of the UK Sibelius Society) which focussed on chamber and instrumental works alongside pieces by David Matthews – neither a radical revisionist nor a slavish adherent of the Finnish master, but a composer who has deployed elements of the Sibelius idiom in the creation of a substantial output absorbing in its subtly evolving perspective on long-held musical tenets.

The first concert was given by the Kreutzer Quartet (Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Mihailo Trandafolovski, Morgan Goff and Neil Heyde), the group’s advocacy of both composers has been unstinting. A concert of two halves as regard quality of performance, the first featured Sibelius’s two mature works for the medium. Andante Festivo (1922) is more often heard in its incarnation for string orchestra and while one would expect the chamber version to evince greater intimacy, the minimal vibrato, virtual absence of phrasing and rapid tempo of this account seemed several steps too far and gave scant pleasure. The ‘Voces Intimae’ String Quartet (1909) fared better, though imprecision of ensemble and fallibility of intonation went hand in hand with a lack of interpretative conviction most evident in the faltering and piecemeal approach to the first movement then an Adagio whose underlying restiveness robbed the music of its inherent profundity.

David Matthews

The second half was more successful – fortunately so as David Matthews’s Twelfth Quartet (2010) is a substantial work here receiving its second hearing. Lasting around 42 minutes, its seven movements draw directly on the example of Beethoven’s late quartets – a trenchant ‘Prelude and Fugue’ followed by a ‘Tango’, ‘Menuetto’ and ‘Serenade’ (each linked by cadenzas for first violin, cello, then second violin and viola) in a three-section scherzo whose corollary is a slow movement of great expressive breadth and tonal clarity. A second ‘Menuetto’ leads to an intensive sonata-form ‘Finale’, its contrapuntal earnestness leavened by birdsong and a melodic immediacy that crystallises in the eloquent coda. Along with Matthews’s Sixth Symphony, this is the most significant British work of its genre during the past decade and the Kreutzer Quartet (whose recording on Toccata Classics has just appeared) gave its all in an account of manifest commitment.

Friday’s concert was a recital by violinist Sara Trickey and pianist Daniel Tong. Sibelius’s output for the duo-medium is a substantial one only now receiving its due – certainly the Sonatina in E (1915) has a charm and vitality such as outweighs its modest dimensions, while the two sets of miniatures (1929) give indications of where the composer was headed as he wrestled – ultimately unsuccessfully – with his Eighth Symphony. Yet whereas the Four Pieces (Opus 115) are progressively more exploratory, culminating in the spectral sonorities of ‘Die Glocken’, the Three Pieces (Opus 116) move towards greater equanimity and poise – notably with the expressive vibrancy of ‘Rondeau romantique’. Whatever their ‘minor’ status, these are pieces whose rewards are appreciably in advance of their proportions – something that Trickey and Tong conveyed in performances which teased out many subtleties within an instrumental interplay only possible from a master of the medium.

Interspersed between these Sibelius items were two works by Matthews (of three he has written for violin and piano). Aria (1986) is preceded by a scena in which the main motivic and gestural elements gradually come into focus, before the main portion unfolds as successive variants on a melodic line of increasing emotional fervour. More economical in its thematic content and expressive scope, Adonis (2007) portrays the myth of Venus and Adonis over three pieces in which metamorphosis is at work on a musical as well as narrative level – ultimately focussing on the Welsh folksong ‘My love she’s a Venus’ which had underpinned the work from the outset. Another fine reading from Trickey (for whom the composition was written), who ended the recital with Beethoven’s C minor Violin Sonata (1802) – not the most immediately approachable of his works for the medium, but one whose integration of drama, pathos and humour is as masterly as in any of his earlier works.

Laura Mikkola. Photograph: www.lauramikkola.net

Saturday’s early-evening recital was courtesy of Laura Mikkola, the Finnish pianist whose incisive touch and rhythmic poise were heard to advantage in three Sibelius sets from (respectively) his late, middle and early years. If the Five Esquisses (1929) are at all tentative next to the violin-and-piano pieces from the same year, their glimpses of new expressive terrain are not to be denied. Mikkola conveyed them with alacrity. She was no less insightful in the five pieces of The Trees (1914), Sibelius’s most-appealing such sequence, and the Six Impromptus (1893) in which an overtly Nationalist manner is tempered by a mystical aura familiar from his maturity. Between these came music by Matthews – Variations (1997) that gradually transforms its theme into something subtly different, and the Two Dionysus Dithyrambs (2007) in which Nietzsche’s ecstatic last poems are rendered in intricate music whose harmonic ambivalence is finally outdone by tonal affirmation.

Saturday’s main concert was given by the English Chamber Orchestra and Paul Watkins, not the only British cellist of recent years to have turned to conducting but surely the most successful. A finely-wrought account of Andante Festivo showed how this piece should be done, before violist Sarah-Jane Bradley gave a fine performance of Winter Remembered (2000) – the most personal of Matthews’s concertante works in its alternation of restlessness and introspection prior to a coda of hard-won repose. Its three movements charting the course of togetherness and separation, Sibelius’s Rakastava (1911) exudes a deft profundity such as belies its status as ‘light’ music – not least as Watkins’s ability to coax a rapt response from his players was redolent of an earlier cellist turned conductor (John Barbirolli). The first half closed with the Presto (1894) that is the finale of Sibelius’s B flat String Quartet – music whose energy and suavity are readily enhanced in its transcription for string orchestra.

After the interval, Matthews’s Adagio for strings (1990) proved as moving and understated a commemoration as in its initial quartet guise, while the world premiere of his Three Birds and a Farewell (2011) endowed the string orchestra with another gem – its piquant evocations of blackbird, cuckoo and song-thrush interspersed with a wistful interlude rounded-off by a ‘Goodnight Song’ of limpid poise. The UK premiere of Sibelius’s complete original incidental music to Arvid Järnefelt’s play Kuolema (1903) afforded the opportunity to hear Valse triste in its stark initial incarnation along with the music that later became Scene with Cranes but which, as ‘Elsa’s Song’, was graced by the plaintive contribution of Lucy Roberts. Johnny Herford was no less adept in the virile expression of ‘Paavali’s Song’, before convulsive string tremolos made plain the dramatic denouement. A breezy rendering of Matthews’s sure-fire encore Total Tango (2003) brought the evening to a lively close.

Saturday morning and afternoon has been devoted to a Study Day where four speakers discoursed on aspects of the composer’s legacy. Andrew Barnett, Chairman of the UK Sibelius Society, outlined the diversity of the composer’s still under-appreciated music for the theatre and then composer Julian Anderson examined Sibelius’s far-reaching influence on later generations. Edward Clark surveyed the radical differences between original and revised versions of several major works – not least the Fifth Symphony, with its decidedly overreaching finale – then David Matthews provided a thoughtful perspective on Sibelius’s symphonic quest and its impact on his own symphonies. As was remarked during the course of the seminar, Sibelius remains perhaps the most misunderstood and most misinterpreted of major composers – but such misunderstanding has paradoxically been to the benefit of a legacy whose greatness was evident throughout this welcome and necessary festival.

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