MATTHEWS: Fantasia on Paganini’s Second Violin Concerto. 3 Chants. 4 Australian Birds. Sonata for Solo Violin. The National Anthem. Song Thrust Fragment. Birthday Piece for Richard. An Album Leaf for Sally. Not Farewell. 15 Preludes for Solo Violin / Peter Sheppard Skærved, violinist / Toccata Classics 0309
My introduction to British composer David Matthews was his splendid album of piano trios (Toccata Classics 0369), and here we have an album of a cappella violin pieces played by his friend and colleague Peter Sheppard Skærved, for whom they were written. According to the brief promo sheet, Matthews enjoys challenging Skærved with technically difficult works while the violinist enjoys being pushed to the limit and responds with some of his most expressive playing.
Certainly, I was captivated by the Fantasia on Paganini’s Second Violin Concerto. Here is a piece that, unlike the majority of such pieces, does not quote too heavily from the original before taking off in its own very different direction. Matthews’ personality comes through clearly: his penchant for out-of-tonality outbursts, rhythmic daring and a level of adventure in everything he writes. And Skærved is the kind of violinist who pushes himself to the max, not only technically but also emotionally, which makes for some exciting, edge-of-your-set listening. In the 3 Chants, Skærved is asked to hum and whistle along with his own playing, to interesting effect. This music is not as technically challenging as the former piece, but strange and wonderful in its own way, evoking strange moods in its long, sustained notes and unusual melodic lines. 4 Australian Birds is written in the same vein as the Chants, but without vocalization. The music is evocative and charming without being sugary sweet or treacly. Matthews mimics the sounds of the birds with occasional portamento effects or high-range “twittering” on the violin strings. In the fourth piece, quarter tones are used to find notes “between the cracks.”
The solo violin sonata, although very challenging technically, is surprisingly short, lasting only 13 minutes (and the third movement is the longest at 5:20). Here, once again, Matthews shows his mastery of form within the parameters of his own unique style, producing interesting, contrasting themes and lines for the soloist to play. Interestingly, in that slow movement, Matthews employs much the same sort of musical and technical effects that he used in the 4 Australian Birds, and Skærved responds with some deeply-felt yet intriguing playing.
The National Anthem is, of course, God Save the Queen (or King, depending on who’s on the throne), played with daring double stops and strong downbow attacks. The other very brief pieces which follow are all basically sound-snapshots in which Matthews pushes Skærved to the limit technically, although An Album Leaf for Sally incorporates these things into a plaintive and lovely melody that is wholly unique.
The 15 Preludes for solo violin alternate slow-moving pieces with rapid ones. Mood is uppermost in the performer’s mind, and Skærved responds with what is now his expected combination of perfect pitch and placement and emotional projection.
The music on this CD is not for casual listening, despite its intimate quality. Moreover, I feel that continuous listening to the complete CD does the music a disservice, as its density somewhat numbs the mind as the album progresses. I would, rather, recommend hearing it a few tracks at a time in order to better appreciate all the remarkable detail that Matthews has put into it.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley