English Chamber Orchestra – 14th March

David Matthews
Aubade (world premiere)
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor
Symphony No.4

Tasmin Little (violin)
English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Shuntaro Sato

Reviewed by: Jason Boyd

Reviewed: 14 March, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

I am usually sceptical of music inspired by birdsong; Messiaen’s use of it is often complex and pedantic. Hence my initial disappointment at reading the background to David Matthews’s new work. The ten-minute Aubade (Op.83) is scored for oboe, cor anglais, two horns and strings. However, any pre-conceived ideas were pleasantly dispelled.

Matthews prefers to take the stylized use of birdsong, after Beethoven’s nightingale or Mahler’s cuckoo. Based on motifs from four birds native to Australia – Munro, Koel, Pied-butcherbird and Eastern Whipbird – Matthews thoughtfully entwines snippets of melody into a larger-scale work. The motifs themselves consist of little more than an interval, or three notes at the most, but are effectively merged and often echoed between instruments.

Music as landscape is something David Matthews is particularly interested in, having written on the subject extensively in his book Landscape into Sound. The lush texture of Aubade’s depicting the Australian vista is created in the opening ’dawn chorus’ with a sustained note from the basses evoking, to my mind, the sound of a didgeridoo reverberating across the Australian outback; the violins suggest the birds’ waking calls. This is followed by a development of the Munro’s song, one of the few birds to sing diatonically. The ’dance for morning’ was lively but understated, initiated by the Koel’s song, which sings a major third similar to the European cuckoo, but rising instead of falling – in other words upside-down, as one might expect from an Australian bird!

Aubade is sublime and peaceful, tonal and neo-classical in expression. Matthews has been much concerned with inherited forms; Maw’s and Britten’s influence is discerned in his harmonic language.

Tasmin Little is something of an expert when it comes to the Romantic/Nationalist schools – she’s recorded Brahms, Sibelius, Dvorak, Lalo, Walton and is acknowledged as a leading interpreter of Delius. In Bruch’s rustic and rich First Violin Concerto she engaged with the audience, was suitably expressive, if a little melodramatic for my liking.

It seems fantastic that Beethoven’s lyrical and graceful Fourth Symphony was written alongside his blazing Fifth. The Fourth has plenty of mood-changes within itself though, Under Shuntaro Sato, the ECO lucidly articulated Beethoven’s ideas and argument – especially the woodwind in the Adagio, and in the strings’ vitality in semiquaver runs. Although I prefer the full forces of a symphony orchestra in Beethoven, the ECO managed to create a satisfyingly large sound.

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