Concerto Grosso No.1 in B flat
Violin Concerto [world premiere]
Symphony No.5, Op.78
Efi Christodoulou (violin)
Orchestra of the Capella
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 2 March, 2013
Venue: Capella Concert Hall, Saint Petersburg, Russia
It says much for David Matthews’s Fifth Symphony that it should be chosen for the prestigious opening concert of the British Music Festival held in Saint Petersburg. The concert also presented the world premiere of the Violin Concerto by Matthew Taylor, the conductor here. Both Taylor and David Matthews had been featured composers in the two earlier British Music Festivals in 2007 and 2009. Like Matthews, Taylor is a symphonist. The common link with the other composer in this concert, William Alwyn, is that he too wrote symphonies. It was with Alwyn that the concert opened, in suitably light-hearted manner. Composed in 1943, Concerto Grosso No.1 adopts a neo-Varoque style. It is a sparkling work, scored for small orchestra, which contains numerous solos, not least for violin and trumpet. The other work by Alwyn was Tragic Interlude (1936) and made a deep impression. Inspired by a poem by Richard Aldington, the music adopts a Wagnerian (Tristan und Isolde) idiom but with its own affecting manner here dispatched with panache and some gravitas.
Taylor’s Violin Concerto is in the standard three movements. In support of the solo violin there are important contributions from harp and mandolin. These instruments combine in an intimate dialogue, making a thoroughly enjoyable and often-exquisite addition to the repertoire. The soloist is kept busy stating and revisiting various types of melodic material, beginning unaccompanied at the very opening, then with vigorous and energetic contributions from the orchestra before relaxing into a singing manner. The movement ends with a flourish of the opening theme in jazz style. The slow movement opens with one of Taylor’s most beautiful threnodies for strings that carries with it a distinct Nordic flavour, the music then involving the soloist in a song without words. This leads into the finale which suggests the manner of a comedy. The full orchestra erupts near the end in a joyous celebration before the soloist intrudes with a few moments of peaceful reflection, only to be rebuffed by a loud final chord. Efi Christodoulou gave a stunning, note-perfect performance enhanced by her adding a piquant sweetness to those lyrical sections. The work, on occasions, integrates the soloist within the fabric of the orchestra and her strength of tone always ensured she was never in danger of being obscured. Taylor conducted with his customary authority, allowing plenty of opportunity for the players to express themselves.
To date David Matthews has written seven symphonies over forty years. When he began his series the form was held in great suspicion by many of his contemporaries. It was Peter Maxwell Davies who, without much warning, wrote his First Symphony in 1976. This proved a shock to modernist sympathies. One such change was the rehabilitation of Sibelius as a modern master instead of the-then prevailing perception held by many in authoritative positions that he was, at best, a redundant Romantic. Another change was the slow but sure re-emergence of then living British symphonists such as Malcolm Arnold and Robert Simpson. Like these two composers, I do not suppose Matthews cared much for fashion but he now can be recognised as one of the finest living British composers whose reputation is solidly built on traditional forms. Knowledgeable Russian music-lovers would have little difficulty in placing the Fifth Symphony in direct lineage from Michael Tippett and Malcolm Arnold. The first movement announces immediately evidence of the former through sheer exuberance, and of the latter in the melodic invention heard through the work. The coruscating scherzo provides a wonderful example of symphonic energy while the Adagio seems to enter the dark recesses of the English landscape with its old myths and legends. The finale is a joyous statement of the human spirit. The Symphony was delivered with confidence and spirit by the Capella Orchestra under the sympathetic guidance of Taylor and is careful attention to the composer’s dynamic markings.