Some may consider that things have come to a pretty pass when it takes an American Music Director of a regional English orchestra to conceive of, and bring to fruition, what he has termed the 21st Century Symphony Project, an inspiration of artistry and programme-planning by commissioning, performing and recording no fewer than nine new Symphonies by living composers – such a plan would, in the days when the BBC had distinguished musicians on its planning staff, have been a natural for the Corporation and the Proms.
In the absence of such figures we have to thank Kenneth Woods for his innovation, which has already brought forth such a greatly significant work as David Matthews’s Ninth Symphony. Now, with Matthew Taylor’s Fifth, we have another.
Matthew Taylor’s Fifth Symphony is the composer’s first in four movements. The language and indeed structure, however, are very much of the present-day – or, rather, that rarely-encountered creative language of intellect, intelligence and deep originality.
The Symphony’s four movements do not adhere, in temporal or structural terms, to any ‘traditional’ shape. The first movement, Allegro, is urgent and not a little tempestuous, the initial material surging this way and that against a fierce A-major tonal base, the C-sharp and E of which fight for supremacy against an underlying variety of triple pulsation. As the music progresses, this triplet pulse is revealed as the essential heartbeat of the work, both driving it forward and supporting the myriad life of its cohesion. The movement ends abruptly but not without a sense of finality – for the moment.
The remaining movements are each inscribed to the memory of a friend or family member; they inhabit very different worlds from the first, if still now distantly related to it by the triple pulsation – at times 3/4, at others 6/8 or 9/8 – in beats and melodic phraseology, but their instrumentation, formal originality and expression are astonishing: here is music far away from the struggles of the first movement – two adjacent intermezzos, the first for chamber orchestra, the second for flute and strings – like two brothers born of the warring first movement.
These middle movements are over within five minutes; the first three having taken around twelve overall. In this way, Taylor has posed himself a considerable formal symphonic challenge, throwing the ultimate resolution of the work on to a relatively (if only relatively) much longer Finale. His solution shows considerable compositional mastery. This Adagio lasts just under fifteen minutes. The music begins quietly – though the emotion is not in any sense tragic – as inexorably the music grows fully organically towards a series of powerful statements, the dynamics raised, the orchestration thicker and ominous, until arriving at a most moving extended coda – the tonality (E-flat minor) now the opposite of that which set the Symphony in motion, triplet pulsations now underlying as the Alpha and Omega of the music’s life.
This movement is dedicated to the memory of Taylor’s mother, who passed during its composition: do we sense a fragmentary allusion to the ‘Requiem aeternam’ Finale of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem – a shade, perhaps, almost unconsciously alluding to an earlier symphonic tribute to a parent from a later generation? Be that as it may, the result is, on just this one hearing, that I regard Matthew Taylor’s new piece to be a masterwork of genuine symphonic thinking, given a performance of which any composer would have been thrilled.
From the new to the familiar – at least, in terms of the work in question. The soloist in Mendelssohn’s (second) Violin Concerto, the young Pavel Šporcl, with his fifteen-year-old blue violin, is relatively unknown to British audiences, but on this showing he more than deserves to become a household name. In terms of lyricism and brilliance, musicality and unpretentiousness, his fine technique and profound musical artistry – his virtually impeccable intonation and deep grasp of the work’s original structure being exceptional – this was an account of memorable quality, Woods and the ESO fully partnering their exceptional soloist. This performance, one of the finest I have heard, demanded, and received, an encore – Paganini’s Caprice No.5 – dazzlingly played.
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony also received one of the best performances I have heard live. Woods’s fine and sane musicality ensured a genuine performance, full of real intensity and sensitivity within a constant view of powerful onward-momentum throughout, a conception that made this imperishable masterpiece fully hang together. It was heartening to hear the Scherzo's second repeat made, as propositioned by some (and also the Scherzo and Trio twice-through), and the repeat in the Finale similarly observed – the latter so often omitted by thoughtless conductors, and Woods’s Presto tempo in the ultimate coda was breathtaking, urging his players on – to the highest degree of musicianship and uplifting expression.