David Matthews: Winter Passions

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

WORKS: Winter Passions; Clarinet Quartet; String Trio; String Trio No. 2; Terrible Beauty; Marina
PERFORMER: Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano), Stephan Loges (baritone); Nash Ensemble/Lionel Friend


Here’s something rare: a disc of contemporary vocal and chamber music that gets better as it goes along. I wasn’t entirely sure about the first item, Terrible Beauty.

The writing has many of David Matthews’s familiar strengths: a fine sensuous imagination, adventurous harmony that makes clear aural sense, an equally clear sense of organic development of ideas. But the vocal writing seemed somewhat weighed down – intimidated perhaps? – by the powerful music already present in Shakespeare’s words. 

However, in the four Pushkin settings (in translation) that comprise Winter Passions the vocal line springs to life – partly a tribute to the singing of baritone Stephan Loges, but only partly – and even the instrumental writing seems quickened by it. This is a wonderfully rich cycle, which seems to contain far more than its ten-minute span should allow. 


Just as impressive is the Second String Trio – not a medium that comes naturally to many composers, but Matthews makes a vehicle for music as energetic, impassioned and strongly sustained as in any of the symphonies. It’s hard to imagine this music played, sung, or recorded better. Stephen Johnson