Spring Symphonies: 46/60 - David Matthews: Symphony No 8

Last year I was able to included a new symphony - the Tenth of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in the series.  This year my little blogging exercise in symphonic enlightenment has coincided with another world premiere.  The Eighth symphony by David Matthews which was given on 17 April at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester by the BBC Philharmonic under the baton of HK Gruber, the dedicatee.

I have to confess none of David Matthew’s previous symphonies are on my radar so I’m doing this blind to his symphonic language, but well aware of some of his orchestral works which the BBC Philharmonic has played.

The symphony started a programme which - as usual with Gruber as conductor - was full of surprises.  Along with this symphony was Weill’s First Symphony and Gruber’s Cello Concerto and Tree Songs by Kurt Schwertsik.  Matthews received copious applause for the work which was more direct than the last work of his I heard in the flesh A Vision of the Sea.

The work opens with a bold chord which sidesteps into a melodic fragment on winds interrupted by drums the melody continues on strings.  The way forward is athletic and full of vigour and somewhat romantic in its mode of address, but it has a great sweep and purpose.  The phrases and moods are short breathed and very varied between Mahlerian posturing to the brevity of English composers of 20th Century.  But this is far from a throwback - it is vital, lively music of our time.  The orchestration is rich and full echoing that motor drive we have heard in 20th Century English composers.  The music builds to a climax and then a slower nocturnal episode builds in the mood of an American landscape only to fade.  There’s some disquiet here - solo horn and cello mark a further change in the mood as the music sinks.  There is something very wistful about this coda - it shimmers as it fades with a luminosity which I heard in A Vision of Sea at it’s premier.  There is a lot to unpick in this movement and in only a few hearings I’ve come to enjoy it.

The second movement is - by the composer’s own account - all about mourning. Matthews lost a friend during composition of the work. This has certainly coloured the this movement: but he has created a moving and powerful threnody.  I’m put in mind of a shifting landscape which is vast in it’s reach seen from afar.  But the effect f this music is intimate too.  That impersonal creeping pain of grief is well captured in it’s soft disruptive gait.  There’s great writing here - especially for strings and winds.  It pulls this way and that - it keeps the deepest motional extremes under wraps, but they are suggested in the  movement’s long intricate layers.  There’s something very Nordic about the whole movement - but to a purpose. Rautvaara’s Seventh Symphony haunting Seventh symphony has some of the breadth but none of the cumulative vigour.  The climax in this movement is hard won and incredibly intense.  The slow decline is profoundly moving. It is a fitting and descriptive memorial 

The finale starts a jolly and jaunty dance with a faux Olde Fashion’d gait but a very modern scoring.  It develops into three more dances.  The orchestration is brilliant and fascinating as it becomes progressively more modern.  As it grows so it loses humour and gains pace.  By the time the movement reaches an high point it becomes more serious and as the move meant progress from that the music becomes more and more fragmented.  It is like watching the notes spin off into the distance.  The rhythm returns and it tries to regroup but nothing quite comes off. The music is full of fabulous effects and fragments, echoes and buoyant rhythms.  It is easy on the ear and I can’t really think of anything I’ve heard like it.  But it balances the other two movements nicely.  I suspect the ending will surprise a few.

I don’t know how the symphony went down with the critics - as I said the Manchester audience gave it long loud applause.  I hope it will be recorded and that more will be given chance to hear it.

Obviously there isn’t a YouTube clip to point to so here’s the link to the concert - which will be available for another 25 days from 21 April 2015.



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