David Matthews’s five-movement Ninth Symphony (2016, part of Kenneth Woods’s 21st Century Symphony Project) is a discovery indeed – so impressive in this day and age, when genuine symphonic composition in terms of creativity appears, in the modern fashion, to have been overturned in favour of this week’s composers, who all too soon become last week’s.
Genuine Symphonies in five movements, unless written by masters of the craft, have a tendency to turn into suites, but Beethoven, Berlioz, Mahler and Shostakovich prove that such a structure can indeed be accomplished by a genuinely gifted composer. Matthews was inspired by a little carol he had written for his wife – which, upon playing it through at the piano, suggested to him far wider implications. The result is his Ninth Symphony. Of those distinguished five-movement predecessors the work it most closely resembles is Shostakovich 9 from 1945 – but only in length: Matthews’s Ninth does not have a first-movement exposition repeat, nor are movements joined together, and neither does it have any humorous moments (as the Russian’s Ninth has).
Although Matthews’s Ninth has moments – indeed, entire passages – where the emotion is relatively (but only relatively) light in mood, it remains a serious and compelling work of consistent musical art throughout. This is because whilst the piece is quite wide-ranging in its expressive features, having much depth and variety of feeling, there is a masterly underlying grasp of an inherent living structure with a constantly powerful over-riding sense of momentum. There is a genuine sense (without exaggeration) of inner struggle, reaching fulfilment in the face of quite extraordinary odds. Not that this implies the music is ‘warlike’ in any way – the intensity of expression is not reduced to a plethora of percussion at full tilt – but the inner struggle is there, nonetheless, finally overcome in the superb Finale, where Matthews, abjuring any ultimate sense of Mahlerian negation, reveals the positive nature of his character in a superb coda, the relatively brevity of which is both surprising and profoundly satisfying. Here, in a number of ways, is a genuine symphony for our times. I was held from start to finish, and Matthews is his own man, and has been for quite a while, relating his experiences in and observations of the World through his art, here profound positivity.
In its way, Matthews 9 is a masterpiece: in wartime 1943, when Matthews was born, the population of the World was around 2.5-billion. Today, it approaches 8-billion, but whereas in 1943 one could legitimately cite more than twenty greatly significant composers active and producing music that was widely admired and which has stood the test of time, today, there is barely a handful, yet amongst them must be counted David Matthews.
The Variations for Strings, reflections on a Bach chorale, does not presume to dig very deeply in terms of musical excavation, but the work is surely one which, when it is over, is as though we have walked through a great cathedral, observing and contemplating the architecture and paintings, finding ourselves enhanced by the experience.
The Double Concerto does dig more deeply, but without exaggeration or any sense of rodomontade; the work’s subtleties (of which there are many) are revealed after relatively deep acquaintance, for here is music of exquisite shades of tone-colour produced by superlatively good playing by Sara Trickey and Sarah-Jane Bradley.
Throughout all three works, the musicians are fully aware of the quality of the music they are performing, and deliver accounts which must have thrilled the composer. In Kenneth Woods we have an artist of notable stature, one who inspires deep respect in everything he conducts. The Nimbus recording and presentation are first-class.