David Matthews: The Music of Dawn; Concerto in Azzurro; A Vision and a Journey (Chandos release); Symphonies Nos 1, 3 & 5 (Dutton release)

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: David Matthews
LABELS: Chandos; Dutton
WORKS: The Music of Dawn; Concerto in Azzurro; A Vision and a Journey (Chandos release); Symphonies Nos 1, 3 & 5 (Dutton release)
PERFORMER: Guy Johnston (cello); BBC Philharmonic/Rumon Gamba (Chandos); BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Martyn Brabbins (Dutton)
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10487 (Chandos); CDLX 7222 (Dutton)

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There are times when you hear a piece of contemporary music and – surprise, surprise – you just enjoy it. Style isn’t the issue. It may be abrasive Birtwistle, or Reich at his most seductively hypnotic. The music speaks so directly and involvingly that you’re caught up in it from the start.

David Matthews’s Concerto in Azzurro is a prime example. The language is unashamedly tonal, impetus being provided by the development of short, memorable motifs which can at any time blossom in voluptuous lyricism. Neo-Romantic? There’s nothing ‘neo-’ or ‘post-’ about any of this music. Matthews doesn’t plead irony as an excuse for speaking in such traditional terms.

In fact, order the three works on the Chandos disc chronologically and they suggest a composer growing increasingly confident about the kind of music he wants to write. The opening of the earliest, The Music of Dawn, is richly atmospheric, but after that the intellectual sequence isn’t easy to follow – is it just too sectional?

But A Vision and a Journey lives up to its title impressively: taking Sibelius as an inspiration (Matthews mentions the magnificent Pohjola’s Daughter) was clearly no bad thing. Strong, persuasive performances, especially from Guy Johnston in the Concerto, are caught in exemplary sound.

Turning to Matthews’s symphonies on Dutton brings another dimension to the story. No. 1 is a remarkable symphonic debut. It’s so assured, single minded and compelling it makes you wonder what his earlier, discarded symphonies were like – he must have learned a lot in writing them. The chorale-based ending is the only passage that jars slightly.

Yet after this Matthews seems more himself in the exultant tonal polyphony that sets the Third Symphony – this time the ending is beautifully judged – and also in the emotionally charged purposefulness of the Fifth.

In the latter work though there’s a new element – humour: I particularly like the way the grandly rhetorical timpani flourish at the end of the first movement is deflated by a col legno splat from the strings.

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In all three works the performances are strikingly authoritative and warmly persuasive (Martyn Brabbins really ought to be recording more) and the recordings sound very good, even if they don’t quite have the Chandos ear for detail. Stephen Johnson