Symphony No.3, Op.33 [World premiere]
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 7 January, 2005
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
Sound Collective made a promising debut at this venue two years ago and, after an equally worthwhile concert at St Giles Cripplegate last year, returned to St John’s for what is becoming a welcome January fixture. The programme consisted of two third symphonies – one of them a world premiere, the other a work that opened up new possibilities in symphonic thinking just over two centuries ago.
Make no mistake – Matthew Taylor is second to none among composers of today who think naturally in symphonic terms, his catalogue featuring a number of chamber works both organically conceived and impressively wrought. His First Symphony – the ‘Sinfonia Brevis’ – has amassed some two dozen performances since its premiere in 1985, and displays no mean symphonic focus within its modest dimensions. Although completed over a decade ago, the Second Symphony has yet to receive its first performance – making this premiere of its successor a significant and much-anticipated event.
Playing for almost half an hour, the Third Symphony is conceived in two substantial parts – between which, a brief interlude emerges to ostensibly redirect and intensify the symphonic current. In his programme note, Taylor contrasts the “apparent” acceleration in musical velocity of Part One with its readily perceivable acceleration during Part Two. Both follow a trajectory of increasingly rapid tempos towards a point of maximum intensity, the music then opening onto a calmer expressive plane. In Part One, this takes the form of a soulful coda that leads directly into the ‘Mephisto’ interlude, one whose subtle hints of ‘big band’ writing for the brass introduce a malevolence into the hitherto earnest discourse. Part Two unfolds as a scherzo whose manner becomes darker and more agitated as it accumulates momentum, climaxing in a return to the sustained music ending its predecessor; this time, the music channels its reserves into a coda which ensures the work an energetic outcome.
Taylor’s ground-plan is a coherent and satisfying one, and it would be good to say that the work as a whole similarly fulfilled its intentions. Yet after a powerful opening gesture and some finely sustained string writing, the first part fails to sustain either formal or expressive continuity – the constituent sections succeeding each other without corresponding intensification. Woodwind writing in particular is unfailingly assured, though an emphasis on spare textures does tend toward plainness rather than concentration. Nor does the sardonic quality introduced by the ‘Mephisto’ theme inform the character and progress of the second part to the degree seemingly intended, which may account for a lack of pathos in the return of the Lamentoso music and the inhibited, even self-conscious feel of the coda.
One reason for this may be a difference of opinion – as Taylor himself admits – between the outcome that he envisaged and as Tom Hammond has chosen to interpret it, and yet there was nothing in the latter’s disciplined handling of the final stages that suggested uncertainty of purpose. Indeed, judged as a whole, this was as assured and as finely-prepared a premiere as one could wish – Taylor’s writing for large classical forces (including harp and three horns) projected with confidence and an alertness that readily overcome the vagaries of the St John’s acoustic. Taylor himself will conduct the second performance in Tunbridge Wells this May, on the 20th, when it will be interesting to see whether the reservations expressed here arise more out of the need for assimilation than from the nature of the work itself.
Certainly it is hard to imagine first-night listeners making as much sense, conceptual or musical, of Beethoven’s Eroica. Hammond took a calculated risk here in opting for authentic (i.e. valve-less) horns and trumpets, and their astringent sonority did at times fail to integrate within the overall orchestral picture. This was countered by the range of timbres drawn from the horns in the scherzo’s trio and in tutti passages during the finale – a tribute to the agility and musicality of the players. Hammond had clearly worked hard to ensure a coherent balance: any lack of definition in the more intricate pages of the opening Allegro was due to an avoidance of the ‘long line’ in phrasing and articulation – though the development, powerfully sustained and rhythmically trenchant, had no lack of focus, while the tonal subtleties making possible the movement’s affirmative outcome were precisely delineated.
The performance was at its finest in the ‘Marcia funèbre’, Hammond’s feel for emotional contrast here allied to a seamlessness of tempo relationships that was as convincing as it was impressive. The wrenching emotion of the central fugato was underpinned by textural clarity at all levels, while the motivic disintegration of the coda brought about a sense of resolution almost in spite of itself. The scherzo, shimmering and rumbustious as the music demands, was hardly less impressive, and it was a pity that, having launched then initially paced the finale in ideal fashion, Hammond fell into the age-old trap of slowing markedly for the variation that brings the ‘Prometheus’ theme to its apotheosis. Such a literal rendering gives the music undoubted nobility but little sense of implicit defiance, and makes it all but impossible to launch and direct the coda with anything like the momentum needed.
This was still an engrossing account of a work which, hewn from the cultural uncertainty of its era, remains among the defining statements of any age. Sound Collective’s utilising of rehearsals as a cumulative learning process could not have been better demonstrated, and one hopes performances such as the ensemble is rightly intent on giving will soon be made possible on a more frequent basis.