Matthew Taylor’s Sixth Symphony

Little Suite No.1, Op.53 (1955)
Early One Morning (1930-31, rev.1962)
Symphony No.6, Op.60 (2021) [world premiere]
Concerto for 28 Players, Op.105 (1970)

Tom Poster (piano)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Martyn Brabbins

Recorded on 9th May then first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 19th July 2021

4 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 July, 2021
Venue: Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

Things may be in the process of changing, but the past months has seen any number of online events – with this concert of British music by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales offering a mixture of the new and (relatively) unfamiliar as made for a compact yet diverse programme.

Most significant was a first hearing for the Sixth Symphony by Matthew Taylor – the latest instalment in a cycle which had previously seen commissions for the fiftieth anniversary of the Kensington Symphony (No.4) and the English Symphony Orchestra’s 21st Century Symphony Project (No.5). Commissioned by the Malcolm Arnold Trust, the new work is dedicated to Arnold’s memory on his centenary and follows a single-movement trajectory through which three main sections can be perceived. The first of these is moderately paced and, as is this work overall, transparently scored for the smallest symphonic forces Taylor has deployed since his Sinfonia Brevis thirty-five years ago. Building out of the clarinet melody near the outset, it unfolds as oblique variations of an intensity offset by some felicitous writing for piano, harp, and glockenspiel.

From a point of pensive expectancy (at twelve minutes), the central section is slower in tempo if not necessarily pulse – its eloquent polyphony made more so through the spare textures and astringent harmonies that build towards a finely wrought climax before subsiding back into the shadows from which it emerged. Livelier and more extrovert in content, the final section initially seems at odds with the foregoing – as if Taylor were recalling the composer behind his own music – but what follows is anything but lightweight as it momentarily retreats into introspection before building to a decisive yet somehow dismissive climax. Such, at any rate, was the impression left by this premiere, given with unstinting conviction by BBCNOW and directed by Martyn Brabbins with a sureness of purpose rare at the launch of any major work.

Less directly appealing and less emotionally overt than its respective predecessors, Taylor’s Sixth gives further proof (if such were needed) of his stature among present-day symphonists. Hopefully, further performances (and maybe even a recording?) will follow before too long.

Prior to this new piece, Tom Poster was the soloist in a revival of Early One Morning, Cyril Scott’s rhapsody-cum-paraphrase on the folksong and a piece which helped to keep this composer’s name alive (thanks to the recording by John Ogdon) during the three decades between his death and tentative revival. As elsewhere in Scott’s output, this is music that promises more than it delivers – which is not to deny the ingenuity with which the main melody threads its way through the texture, or the sensuous allure of its harmonic thinking.

Framing this programme were well-chosen works by Arnold himself. The First Little Suite typifies his idiom near the outset of his maturity, the solemnity of its ‘Prelude’ making way for an urbane ‘Dance’ then a vigorous ‘March’. The Concerto for 28 Players is altogether more unsettling in its disjunct follow-through and acrid harmonies, most notably a central Larghetto whose plangency is barely quelled by the ‘last gasp’ finish of the Finale. Not that the contribution of the BBCNOW made for a less than satisfying realisation in either case.

Available for 30 days via BBC Sounds here.

Information on Matthew Taylor here.

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