CBSO Fourth Sonata & Planets

Spitfire Prelude and Fugue
Colin Matthews
Fourth Sonata for orchestra
The Planets – Suite for large orchestra, Op.32 … including …
Colin Matthews
Pluto, the renewer

City of Birmingham Youth Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sian Edwards

Reviewed by: Dominic Nudd

Reviewed: 19 January, 2005
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

“Encore” is a scheme established by the Royal Philharmonic Society, BBC Radio 3 and the PRS Foundation to promote repeat performances of major orchestral works by living British composers. Fifteen pieces have been selected in the first group announced with performances spread over three seasons, 2004-2007, and each performance will have an education project attached.

A valuable, indeed vital, initiative, but it surely ought to worry anyone interested in contemporary music that such a scheme is necessary. How is it that orchestral music should have so completely dropped off the cultural radar that it is in need of such, apparently urgent, support? Contemporary film, art, literature, pop music, and even architecture still attract considerable interest. The unveiling of a massive new public sculpture in Manchester, “B for Bang”, was a general news item, but a new orchestral work can come and go without so much as a flicker outside the review pages. Orchestras are not museums of a glorious past; they are, or can be, galleries of the most contemporary cutting-edge art.

Three concerts have already taken place this season and been broadcast, including Nigel Osborne’s Zansa, Diana Burrell’s Landscape and John Casken’s Violin Concerto, the latter broadcast live from the James MacMillan Weekend at the Barbican. Colin Matthews’s Fourth Sonata was written in 1974-75, before the composer was thirty, won the Scottish National Orchestra’s 1975 “Ian Whyte Award” and was premiered by that orchestra under Alexander Gibson in April 1976. The most-recent performance was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Barbican in March 1995 under Oliver Knussen.

Fourth Sonata, lasting for about 25 minutes, is in three sections, of which the central section is itself in three parts, and makes a journey from a brittle and quite abrasive opening to a very calm close. The first section begins with stabbing chords from brass and pizzicato strings, reinforced by percussion and works up with increasing rhythmic and textural complexity, all swirling strings and brass fanfares without any clear bass line, to a massive interjection from drums, signalling the second section. As the drums subside lower strings emerge from the depths with fragments of a rising line, gradually developed and passed to horns, and the harps take up a pulsating pattern that returns in the final section. Calm is not easily won and the drums burst in, leaving the orchestra writhing in tension and culminating in anguished brass and a violent percussive extravaganza, which collapses into a luxuriant cello melody rising over pulsating woodwinds and expanding into the percussion and woodwinds of the radiant final section. Apparently the first performances caused a storm among listeners entirely unprepared for the way in which a British composer had absorbed American minimalism and made it expressive and purposeful.

In a brief discussion from the platform with Tommy Pearson, Matthews said that although he still recognised the Fourth Sonata, its youthful exuberance made it feel like the work of another composer. Having once in trepidation shown the score to Benjamin Britten, Matthews remembered him asking “Are you sure you can hear all these notes?”

While Oliver Knussen is willing to let this music speak for itself, Sian Edwards is more overtly expressive, teasing out detail and moulding the music more. The opening was certainly very forward, pizzicato strings registering strongly even against insistent trumpet fanfares and the string playing throughout was characterful and telling, more so perhaps than on Knussen’s DG recording on which, maybe, the London Sinfonietta fielded a smaller number of players (a recording now on Decca 474 316-2). Perhaps because of the greater weight of strings this performance felt less aggressive, the drums in the build up in ‘section two’ insistent but not overpowering. The double basses had a fine rasp, clear and distinctive, as the music moved forward into the central part of the second section. The climax of this section was compelling with plenty of woodwind detail registering, even against the dynamic percussion onslaught, and the transition to the final section clear and multi-textured. The culmination grew with real intensity, the properly shining sound shimmering suddenly into silence.

Symphony Hall was well filled, maybe 80+% capacity, certainly a much larger audience than this programme would draw in London and the audience were quietly attentive – except for one gent in the choir seats who read his paper – and enthusiastic at the end.

The concert opened with an late addition, Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue (derived from his music for “The First of the Few”, the film biography of R.J. Mitchell, the inventor of the Spitfire) which, although highly effective, was unkind to an orchestra that had already rehearsed two substantially difficult works; the Fugue is fiendishly tricky. Nevertheless this was a fine performance, one full of vigour and Waltonian swagger, the Fugue dispatched effortlessly. Indeed the playing of the CBSO was extremely fine throughout.

Sian Edwards took a brisk view of The Planets and here I part company with her; ‘Mars’ at such a fast tempo minimises both its impact and the grinding dissonance. Sir Adrian Boult noted that Holst wanted to emphasise the stupidity of war – here that notion was diminished. ‘Venus’ was well paced, and beautifully played, with glowing solos from guest Leader Marta Abraham, and principal cello Ulrich Heinen. Despite the hectic tempo, the orchestra negotiated ‘Mercury’ with aplomb. ‘Jupiter’, though, was pushed beyond comfort; the “Bringer of Jollity” brought little fun, the rhythms needed more time and space to breathe and skip freely. The double bass section distinguished itself in the opening of ‘Saturn’, a real singing piano sound, almost unearthly, though again a shade more space and breadth would have been welcome. ‘Uranus’ was properly rumbustious, and Symphony Hall’s organ in chromatic surge was superb.

Each movement was applauded – should we get cross with those who break the continuity of music?

Now I have a confession: having booked my train before the Walton was added, I was so concerned about missing transport home that I ducked out and missed Holst’s ‘Neptune’ and Colin Matthews’s ‘Pluto’. Whether the latter would have convinced me this time, as against previous times, I don’t know. Matthews was probably the best person to attempt it, but I think it’s an impossible task to add a new movement to The Planets; Holst’s ending for ‘Neptune’ is so imaginative (female voices fading into the distance) that had he wanted or ever expected another movement he would undoubtedly have written something entirely different.

The Fourth Sonata is a far better testament to Colin Matthews’s skills.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 6.30 on Sunday 23 January
  • CBSO

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