Towards Sunrise, Op.117 (2011) Symphony No.8, Op.131 (2014)
Sinfonia, Op.67 (1995/2015)
A Vision of the Sea, Op.125 (2012)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Jac van Steen
Recorded November 7 & December 6, 2017 at BBC MediaCityUK, Salford
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: February 2021
CD No: SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD647
Duration: 68 minutes
Not the least attraction of this latest release of David Matthews’s music is that all his nine (to date) Symphonies have now been commercially recorded (Nos. 1, 3 and 5 on Dutton CDLX7222, Nos. 2 and 6 on Dutton CDLX7234, No.4 on NMC D084, No.9 on Nimbus NI6382). Its wider remit is in providing a conspectus of the composer’s orchestral music stretching over almost two decades, and further demonstrating the inherently symphonic nature of even the shorter among these pieces: whether, or not, they have a specifically illustrative inspiration.
The Eighth Symphony opens-up lines of enquiry as will no doubt be continued in due course. As in his Sixth, Matthews adopts a three-movement format – but here the expressive follow-through is less starkly drawn. That said, the first movement frames its tensile and pugnacious sonata Allegro within an Andante whose circumspection becomes the more searching on its reappearance. The centrepiece in every sense is an Adagio whose elegiac cast befits its role as a memorial (to the composer Norman Worrall), given additional intensity by the fugue which steals across the strings then builds to a heightened recall of the main theme. While the final Allegretto is intent on dispelling such solemnity, its sequence of ‘dance variations’ assumes more ambiguous qualities as the music moves through the deftest of interludes then curtailed restatement of earlier ideas on the way to a conclusion of teasing understatement. Matthews writes in the booklet of a compunction to counterbalance the ‘dark’ with the ‘light’ in human as in musical terms and, given the rightness of his formal solution here, who would disagree?
Although the earliest of these pieces, Sinfonia was substantially revised nearly two decades after its premiere to result in a compact sonata design whose restive opening Andante makes way for an Allegro of Stravinskian rhythmic dynamism. Only with the heightened arrival of the reprise does a florid lyricism more often associated with Matthews come to the fore, and even this is held in check by the astringent closing chord. Here, as throughout this release, Paul Turner’s electrifying timpani-playing fairly banishes any thought of rhapsodic introspection.
The other two works were written in proximity, with something of the same conception and content. Toward Sunrise draws on those harmonies evinced by the sun’s magnetic field for a tone poem that proceeds as a series of variations towards the epiphany of its closing sunrise. If the outcome of A Vision of the Sea is not dissimilar, this piece’s inspiration in the English Channel off the Kent coast is reflected in the steady accumulation of formal and expressive tension as takes in a capricious scherzo; on either side of which, the sea comes gradually and irresistibly into focus before engendering an even more graphic sunrise. Playing these works in succession brings out their underlying associations, a measure of that ‘same yet different’ facet which has come increasingly as well as impressively to the fore in Matthews’s output.
Assured performances by the BBC Philharmonic and Jac van Steen, whose advocacy of the composer has resulted in three discs of his orchestral music, with spacious sound not lacking clarity or definition. Matthews’s notes on each piece are as succinct as they are informative.