DAVID MATTHEWS: Symphony No. 1, Op. 9; No. 3, Op.37; No. 5, Op. 78A – BBC National Orchestra of Wales/ Martyn Brabbins, conductor – Dutton CDLX 7222, 66:33 [Distr by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Recently I had the opportunity to review another CD of music by David Matthews to generally good effect, though I did have some concerns about his ability to sustain interest in his tone poems. This new release from Dutton lets us see quite clearly the developmental processes he has traversed since his First Symphony hit print in 1975 (with substantial revisions in 1978). In the notes the composer speaks of his need to “solve” the question of the symphony, and his methodology revolved around a continuous one-movement process, though there are certainly discernible sections in the piece. Here we have no tone poem associations at all, only pure musical argument, and it is fascinating to hear Matthews work his way through it. This is not developmental music as we are used to hearing, but instead various strands and mechanisms that the composer presents to us using his own internal and very personal way of working out the substantive connective tissue that allows the listener to make sense of the work. Lest this sound too obtuse and abstract, let me say that Matthews is a very tonal composer who uses only traditional means to make his arguments, and each of these three pieces is quite cogent in its emotional and logical application.
Whereas the First Symphony is more rustic and even medieval in its use of disparate lines that somehow come together to complete a whole, the Third takes us into a more romantic sense of passage work and direct appeal to the emotions. The harmonies are thicker and more resonant, and the contrapuntal work more involved, the composer also being cognizant of his influences, to my hearing Benjamin Britten, though there are nods to the great pastoralists of the past, albeit presented in a very modern way that enjoys the composer’s unique stamp. Symphony No. 5 is by far the greatest work here, offering even some melodic fragments that I also hear in the symphonies of Stravinsky, and by now we have sprouted the music into a full four-movement piece of great substance, neoclassical yearnings, and a far more communicative manner that while not lacking in the other works is certainly far more developed here.
Excellent Dutton sound and a thoroughly convincing set of readings by Martyn Brabbins make this a desirable release for anyone interested in contemporary British music of great accessibility while still posing challenges.
— Steven Ritter