Matthews’ Piano Trios Fascinating & Intense

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MATTHEWS: Piano Trios Nos. 1-3; Journeying Songs* / Leonore Piano Trio; *Gemma Rosefield, cellist / Toccata Classics TOCC0369

The music of David Matthews (b. 1943) is extremely interesting and original despite his having been influenced strongly by the Viennese classics (Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler) as well as “Sibelius and the early twentieth-century modernists,” particularly Britten and Tippett. He unapologetically describes himself as a tonal composer, but within the parameters of tonality has some surprising and original things to say.

Matthews’ music does indeed seem to combine the aesthetics of Beethoven (his tremendous motor rhythms), Mahler and Britten (his harmonic sense, tonal yet adventurous), but as I say, the music has its own unique flavor. He seems to enjoy writing very high up for the violin, for one thing, and according to the liner notes he was encouraged by Hans Keller to not have the piano part too prominent in order to maintain a good balance between instruments. The first trio, written in 1983, begins with an almost painful wail from the violin way up high before moving down and evolving in a very linear fashion. Tonal this music may be, but it is not sugary; on the contrary, Matthews continually brings out drama rather than pathos in his remarkable scores. Listen, for instance, to the second movement (“Allegretto”) of the first trio, with its galumphing, Beethoven-like humor (Matthews admits that it was intended as a portrait of Keller). When he reaches the slow movement, his expression is not so much relaxed as simply retaining tension at a slower pace. The melody was taken from Matthews’ song cycle The Golden Kingdom, a piece titled “Bright Cloud,” but if this is intended to represent a cloud it must indeed be a strange, edgy-looking cloud with overtones of the sinister about it. At 4:38 into the movement, Matthews reduces the strings to playing very softly and high up in their range with the edge of the bow, creating a feeling of the unknown creeping in, while the piano plays soft, almost isolated chords to fill in. More interestingly, this movement continues into the next (“Molto moderato”) without a break, not only sustaining the tempo but also the slightly edgy mood.

The second trio, composed a decade later for the Chagall Trio, seems to pick up where the first left off, but by this time Matthews seems to have moved a bit closer to creating melodic lines, however bitonal the supporting harmonic base may be. The opening movement sings and soars, using an ostinato rhythm near the end of the movement to push it along to…a dead stop literally in the middle of nowhere! The second movement is based on a particularly lovely melody in D-flat (with occasional harmonic leanings) played mostly by the violin (again, high up in its range) while the piano supports it with gentle chords and the cello later takes over. The music continues to develop until, around the 4:35 mark, it opens up like a sunflower, radiant and beautiful before retreating to a quiet, mysterious space that only Matthews seems to create so well. The “Scherzo” is a buzzing beehive of activity, swirling around C but chordally clustered in such a way as to deny the music settling into any specific key. The busy activity of the last movement almost sounds like a continuation of the “Scherzo,” only much quieter.

The Trio No. 3 was written for The Chamber Music Company in 2005. It, too, marks a move towards a more lyrical style, although there’s a fascinating section in the middle of the first movement in which the strings “walk” up a repeated minor-key series of triplets against the piano. The second movement unveils an even more different style, a slow movement narrated by small gestures and little snippets of melody, ingeniously strung together. This is truly creative music of a sort you seldom hear today, a way of “leading” the listener’s ear from episode to episode via gestures that somehow magically fit together. Somehow, things seem to slow down even more before the tempo suddenly quadruples at the seven-minute mark, turning the so-far-relaxed movement into an edgy push forward, then relaxing again.

The CD ends with the three Journeying Songs for solo cello (2004), superb pieces that conjure up images (for me, at least) of journeying through fields teeming with creepy-crawly wildlife. The cello is pushed to the max in terms of its technical demands, and Gemma Rosefield responds beautifully. Curiously, I felt that some of this music put me in mind of the kind of things Priaulx Rainier wrote back in the 1960s, particularly Tom o’Bedlam.

This is a particularly fascinating album. Highly recommended!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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