International Summer School at Dartington

Romance, Op.11
Chanson de matin, Op.15/2; Chanson de nuit, Op.15/1
David Matthews
Piano Concerto [World premiere]
Simple Symphony, Op.4

Helen Reid (piano)

Trinity College of Music String Ensemble
Nic Pendlebury

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 11 August, 2010
Venue: Great Hall, Dartington

30 short fanfares for (mainly solo) brass instruments have been commissioned to celebrate Gavin Henderson’s 25 years of loyal service as Dartington Summer School’s ‘headmaster’, the manuscripts being gifted to him on his retirement this year. It was appropriate that the audience for David Matthews’s Piano Concerto was heralded by his own piece for solo trumpet, played from the Great Hall’s ramparts.

Inside the imposing Hall, the Trinity College of Music String Ensemble under Nic Pendlebury performed an hour of English music that was in danger of indulging in English whimsy were it not for the new concerto. The Romance by Gerald Finzi is a touching piece, much in debt to Elgar, written in a flowing and fluent style. Elgar himself displayed his tuneful talents with his Chansons, the first an indelible (if overplayed) tune, the second showing his love for French ballet music from a bygone age.

There followed the commission, a piano concerto by David Matthews. Two other composers sprang to mind, both of whom are important symphonists and both of whom wrote (very different) piano concertos: Michael Tippett and Robert Simpson. But this was by way of contrast only. David Matthews chose not to emulate the grandeur of Tippett; instead he opted for a smaller-scale attempt at forging the piano with its ensemble, much as Simpson did; both composers succeed in writing an attractive concerto.

For a long time deterred by the idea of writing a piano concerto, Matthews has relented when offered a string ensemble instead of a full orchestra. The result is a 20-minutes, four-movement work offering plenty of contrast and even a ‘big tune’! Each movement has a special character, not least the second, a ‘tango’ (much beloved by Matthews) which takes the listener into the dance-hall with flamboyant flourishes from the soloist. The opening movement alternates lyrical to rhythmic impulses; the third displays a textural flow that is shared between the soloist and strings, based on a meditative idea: the music ebbs and flows through a labyrinth of feelings and sensations. The finale opens in high spirits and allows an expansive melody to appear – as the composer writes: “as thought essential in some of the most popular concertos of the past”. The end is quietly mysterious. String ensembles now have a fine addition to their repertoire and will be fortunate to find a soloist as excellent as Helen Reid who bought this concerto to the life it deserves.

Britten’s Simple Symphony was castigated by music pundit Hans Keller but it deserves a better press. Indeed it is now one of Britten’s most widely performed works with players enjoying the twists and turns the composer skilfully embeds in the sonorities. It is a charming if inconsequential piece. The performers under their college conductor gave all the works their best efforts. Bach’s ‘Air’ from the D minor Suite was the odd choice of encore.

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