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David Matthews (b1943)

A vision of the sea & other works

BBC Philharmonic, Jac van Steen (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
BBC Studios, Mediacity, Salford, United Kingdom
Produced by Michael George
Engineered by Stephen Rinker
Release date: January 2021
Total duration: 67 minutes 42 seconds

Cover artwork: Painting by David Matthews (b1943)

An album showcasing the orchestral music—symphonic in scale and ambition whether or not officially titled 'symphony'—of contemporary British composer David Matthews in superbly approachable performances by the BBC Philharmonic.


‘David Matthews continues to build on the rich British symphonic tradition, offering a principled alternative to those 20th-century styles that bore little if any audible relation to major-minor tonality … Matthews’s Eighth projects a winning eloquence and energy without ever lapsing into ponderousness’ (Gramophone)

‘The two pieces at the heart of this release date from 2013, Matthews’s 60th year. They and the two shorter works reveal him at the height of his powers in both abstract and programmatic writing. Each is played with a winning combination of broad melodic sweep and finely observed detail by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Jac van Steen’ (BBC Music Magazine)» More
Of the four pieces on this disc, only one is a numbered symphony, but three of them at least have a strong relation with the symphonic idea, which has obsessed me since I started composing at the age of sixteen (my first piece was a large-scale symphony, and I wrote several others before my ‘official’ No 1). Hans Keller defined the symphony as 'the large-scale integration of contrasts', and this concise definition has been as much my aim in the five works I have called symphonic poems as in my nine symphonies. The difference is that while symphonies for me have been purely abstract pieces, symphonic poems like A vision of the sea have in addition a programmatic aspect. I am here in agreement with Sibelius, who made a similar distinction between symphony and symphonic poem. Toward sunrise is too short to be a symphonic poem; I suppose ‘tone poem’ would be the appropriate name for it, if I had to give one.

I have a deep regard for the BBC Philharmonic: it has given performances of eleven of my works, five of which it has commissioned, including the eighth symphony and A vision of the sea. Jac van Steen has previously recorded four of my pieces, and I cannot praise him highly enough as an interpreter of my music. And I would also like to thank all the members of the BBC Philharmonic for their magnificent playing, and the orchestra’s chief producer Mike George for the superb sound he has created for this album.

The starting point of Toward sunrise, which I wrote between 2011 and 2012, was hearing the sound of the sun, as recorded by scientists at Sheffield University and used as the coda to the last episode of Neil MacGregor’s radio series A history of the world in 100 objects. As reported by Richard Grey, science correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, these are 'musical harmonies produced by the magnetic field in the outer atmosphere of the sun. [The scientists] found that huge magnetic loops that have been observed coiling away from the outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere, known as coronal loops, vibrate like strings on a musical instrument.' The recording I heard had the interval of a rising fourth, C-F, against a sustained harmony of these two notes. It seemed uncannily appropriate—an Urmotiv—and I transferred these sounds to low strings, with a contrabassoon playing the almost inaudible low B underneath the C-F harmony, and gradually built up to a climax. The piece ends with this lowest possible B (the basses with their C string tuned down), sounding together with the highest possible B on string harmonics.

I had seen the films that Barrie Gavin has made to accompany George Benjamin’s A mind of winter and Toru Takemitsu’s How slow the wind with landscape imagery from Wales and Scotland. I decided to write a piece of my own that Barrie could accompany with film, and I was delighted when he agreed to this. He sent me a lot of footage of landscape imagery—much of it of mountains—which acted as inspiration. I imagined the piece as starting in late afternoon and proceeding through dusk and a short episode of night to a dawn at the end. In form it is a set of variations on the opening phrase, which incorporates the rising fifth. There is some birdsong, as in many of my recent pieces, including a curlew in the quiet section before the concluding sunrise. Toward sunrise is dedicated to Barrie Gavin for his 80th birthday in 2015, when the piece was first performed at the Lichfield Festival by the City of Birmingham Orchestra conducted by Lahav Shani.

My Symphony No 8 was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic, composed in 2014, and premiered in 2015 at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, conducted by H K Gruber, to whom it is dedicated. The seventh symphony had been the culmination of my four attempts at a single-movement form. For the eighth I returned to the three-movement form of my sixth, but with the second and third movements slow/fast instead of fast/slow. The first movement has an Andante introduction, beginning with a descending phrase which is used in a varied form in all three movements, followed by a concise Allegro energico. A number of ideas rapidly lead to a more extended theme on the trumpets in a bright D major. This reaches a brief climax before a development section during which the theme tries but fails to restate itself in the movement’s opening tonality of G. A big crescendo over a pedal D seems to be leading to the re-establishment of G; instead the trumpet theme reappears as a ghost of itself on piccolo, beginning in C sharp minor and wandering through various keys until the return of the Andante introduction, now extended into a coda, and ending on the chord with which the movement began.

The second, slow movement is clearly in G minor and its tone is elegiac. It became a memorial piece for my friend Norman Worrall, a composer, a lover of music, and a Mancunian, who died while I was writing it. The central section is a fugue for strings before a powerful return of the opening section and a quiet, lamenting coda. In complete contrast, the finale opens in a carefree G major. It consists of four dance sections, each lasting just over a minute, all of them exuberant in tone. At the end of the fourth dance, a waltz, there is an interlude with a viola theme accompanied by downward glissandi on the violins, which was inspired by vapour trails in the sky over Deal on the Kent coast. The four dance sections then reappear in reverse order, the first three abbreviated and the last extended into a coda. At the very end, the theme of the first movement’s introduction is heard again, now free of tension, and in the last three bars the opening of the trumpet theme is played by a bassoon, quietly affirming the G major it had always been searching for.

While I no longer feel the need to defend my use of tonality, since it seems obvious now that non-tonal music has not replaced it, perhaps I should say something about my light-hearted finale, with its use of melodic ideas that some might think naïve. Of course I’m aware that I’m going very much against the zeitgeist, and that most major art today is pessimistic in tone—which, given the state of the world, is hardly surprising. Yet shouldn’t it still be possible to express feelings of delight, love of life, elation? They will inevitably be mingled with other, darker moods. But if we cannot contrast one with the other, then surely we are not fully human.

I wrote the original version of Sinfonia in 1995 for the English Chamber Orchestra, who commissioned it to mark their 35th anniversary, and it was premiered by them at the Barbican Hall in London in 1996. At the time I was dissatisfied with the piece, but apart from a few minor revisions I did nothing with it until the summer of 2015 when I decided to rewrite it; in doing so I cut out over two minutes of music, and also made considerable alterations to the musical texture, including the addition of an extra pair of horns to the orchestra.

When I was asked to compose the piece, my original intention was to write an overture. Concert overtures, however, normally have some programmatic content, which this piece does not. So I decided on ‘Sinfonia’, which implies a relation with classical sonata form. The piece begins with a substantial introduction, featuring many of the instruments as soloists. In the main Allegro, purely rhythmic material (with prominent timpani) is contrasted with more lyrical music (for the strings) and this juxtaposition provokes an energetic development and a modified recapitulation. There is a coda in a more flamboyantly lyrical style, and Sinfonia ends with the bitonal chord on which it began.

I dedicated this new version to my brother Colin on his 70th birthday, with love and admiration.

A vision of the sea was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic for the 2013 BBC Proms, where it was conducted by Juanjo Mena. I wrote it partly in London and partly in Deal, where I compose much of my music. My house there is within sound of the sea, and I daily observed its changing moods and colours. A vision of the sea is the third piece I have written influenced by this particular part of the English Channel. The title derives from an unfinished poem by Shelley, which describes a violent storm. There is no actual storm in my piece, but I liked the title, and chose two lines from the poem as an epigraph:

Round sea-birds and wrecks, paved with
Heaven’s azure smile,
The wide world of waters is vibrating.

The herring gull calls heard at the start are pervasive throughout the piece: as I was composing I could almost always hear them. And the view of the sea from Deal looks towards the Goodwin Sands, a notorious place for wrecks.

A vision of the sea began with a small piano piece I wrote in 2012 called Cap Gris-Nez after the highest point of the French cliffs, often visible from Deal. I was also thinking of Debussy finishing La mer in the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne and looking across the Channel towards France. I decided to open my symphonic poem with a transcription of the opening of Cap Gris-Nez, which evokes a calm sea and the sound of herring gulls. After this, the first main section suggests a gently moving sea, its initial violin theme growing out of the descending four-note phrase heard on high violins at the start of the introduction. This is followed by a substantial scherzo, which develops the material heard so far, and perhaps conjures the spirit of ‘Jeux de vagues’ from La mer without encroaching too much on Debussy’s inimitable sound-world. The scherzo overflows into a brief but forceful recapitulation of the first section: the sea demonstrating its full power. The stern chaconne that follows is also a metaphor for the power of the sea. It reaches a climactic chord and subsides into stillness.

The last section of the piece begins with a portrait of a pre-dawn, calm seascape, ruffled only by herring gull cries. It leads to an evocation of sunrise, which, because Deal faces east, I have often observed on clear mornings. The sunrise is the same one as in Toward sunrise, but with an expanded orchestration.

A vision of the sea is dedicated to Sally Cavender, Performance Music Director of my publisher, Faber Music, in gratitude for her many years of dedicated promotion of my music, and friendship, and also because, as a native of Whitstable, where the Thames Estuary meets the English Channel, she knows this sea as intimately as I do.

David Matthews © 2020

It has been a great privilege and pleasure to study, rehearse and finally perform David’s symphonic music in a variety of programmes, not least because working on his music means working with David in person: exchanging thoughts on his orchestration, dynamics, tempi and orchestral colours … The sound world he creates provides a conductor with the possibility to show the full capacities of a good orchestra shining for the maximum!

I will never forget David’s own words in his 'Thank You' to the members of the BBC Philharmonic orchestra: 'I try to write music which you simply enjoy playing.' That is a great challenge in itself—demanding to play but utterly rewarding.

Jac van Steen © 2020

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