Contrasting Works by Two Composer Brothers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Colin Matthews, David Matthews, Fauré: The Schubert Ensemble [William Howard (piano), Simon Blendis (violin), Jane Salmon (cello), Douglas Paterson (viola)], Cheltenham Music Festival, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 5.7.2013 (RJ)

Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat, Op 47
Colin Matthews: Nowhere to Hide (première),
David Matthews: Four Portraits
Fauré: Piano Quartet No 1 in C minor, Op 15.

Colin and David Matthews are two of Britain’s best-established composers, but this must be the first time they have shared a concert at the Cheltenham Music Festival. Both studied at Nottingham University, both were mentored by Benjamin Britten – but that does not mean that you cannot tell their music apart. Quite the contrary, as the audience discovered in this morning recital by the Schubert Ensemble.

The programme began with a glorious performance of the Schumann Piano Quartetno dreamy Romanticism here but a well-integrated first movement, made all the more striking by the clarity of the Schubert Ensemble’s playing. The scherzo was executed at lightning speed followed by a more delicate andante, after which came a robust finale full of contrapuntal features leading to a triumphant conclusion.

Nowhere to Hide may sound an unusual title for a chamber trio. Apparently, John Adams warned Colin Matthews that the problem with writing piano trios is that the composer has “nowhere to hide”, so he knew he was taking a risk with this commission. Intended as a one-movement work, it has grown to four movements – one lengthy opening movement taking up half the time plus three short concluding movements.

The work had a dark gloomy opening but gradually, after a wistful violin melody, the mood brightened with pizzicato on the strings making way for a majestic conclusion. The three short movements included a delightful Berceuse composed in memory of Elliott Carter, who died at the end of last year, a playful Scherzino and a subdued and reflective Afterword. Ifthere is a problem with this trio it is that the three short movements seemed to be afterthoughts and insufficiently integrated with the first movement for one to view the work as a whole – despite some persuasive playing by members of the Schubert Ensemble.

A new piano work followed after the interval: David Matthews’ Four Portraits. The first portrait was of the pianist William Howard himself interpreting someone else’s interpretation of his character and manner: a tricky proposition! From the Chopinesque character of the music it looks as Matthews discerns in Howard sultry Romantic passions simmering beneath the cool, calm exterior.

The portrait of composer Anthony Powers with its fragment of Welsh folksong was less contentious, and one seemed to hear more of the subject’s surroundings than the man himself. The same might also be said of Ann Senior whose flower garden seems to take up a large part of her life: the musical portrait conjured up a wonderful array of colourful blooms and birdsong. And there was no mistaking the roots of composer Pavel Novák, buoyed along by the cheerfully rhythmic Moravian music of his country. For all its diversity this work had a unity which his brother’s première didn’t have. I trust I am not fomenting a family feud!

The recital ended with Fauré’s Piano Quartet No 1. People who regard the composer as a rather gentle, staid church musician would have been swept off their feet with this wonderful work which flowed with passion and melody right from the very first note. The Scherzo bubbled with life with some fleet footed piano playing below the pizzicato sections rendering the Adagio that followed just that little more delicate, elegiac and heartfelt. The Schubert Ensemble then went on to ascend the peaks in their vigorous, bouncy finale which led to a thrilling climax.

Roger Jones