Saturday, 28 December 2013

Matthew Taylor – a retrospective review of symphony and chamber music recordings from this fine composer

Regular followers will remember how impressed I was with Matthew Taylor’s Second Symphony and Viola Concerto which I reviewed last July (2013).

Since then, courtesy of Toccata Classics, I have been able to acquaint myself with a number of his chamber works that I found equally impressive. This led me to acquire the Dutton recording of Taylor’s Symphony No.1 ‘Sinfonia Brevis’, Horn Concerto and Symphony No.3.

Although these recording were issued between 2005 and 2013, given their quality it is worth reviewing them retrospectively.

Matthew Taylor was born in London in 1964 and attended the Junior Royal Academy of Music. He studied composition with Robin Holloway at Queens' College, Cambridge and later at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and at the Royal Academy of Music, London.  Taylor furthered his composition studies with Robert Simpson and David Matthews. As a conductor he trained with Vilem Tausky and with Leonard Bernstein at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik festival.

On their 2005 release, Toccata Classics featured Taylor’s Piano Trio, op.17, Third String Quartet, op.18 and Conflict and Consolation, Op.19 performed by The Lowbury Piano Trio, The Schidlof Quartet and Members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra  conducted by Martyn Brabbins 

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Matthew Taylor’s Piano Trio, op.17 (1993-94) was commissioned by the Lowbury Piano Trio and first performed on 8th April 1995 at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham. Consisting of three movements and influenced by Beethoven, it has a dissonant opening to the Grave – Allegro pesante before the music falls to a quiet passage. Soon the Allegro pesante arrives with a strident piano against often equally strident strings. As the movement develops, the quieter passage returns only to be disturbed by violent and stormy writing before ending on a ruminative, uncertain note. The Theme and Variations: Adagio molto opens quietly and darkly and, as it develops, becomes anguished and laboured with little hints of Tippett. Eventually a quiet but lively motif on the strings, responded to by the piano, appears before the music rises, becoming quite intense and animated. When the music quietens it is the solo piano that takes the melody before the strings join. There is lovely interplay between strings and piano as the music heads to the coda of this intensely moody movement. The Finale: Allegro opens quietly with strange little motifs that slowly develop. There is an underlying feeling of tension and some wonderful string textures. The coda is truly haunting in its emotional austerity.

The performance by the Lowbury Piano Trio is truly first rate.

Taylor’s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 18 was first performed in Norwich in September 1995 and was commissioned by the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. It is dedicated to the Schidlof Quartet who have performed it regularly. It has a vibrant opening Allegro vigoroso with those dissonances still there. There is a playfulness to some of the motifs with the music rising to a little climax before playfully moving ahead to its repeated chordal end. The chords that end the first movement seem to be echoed briefly at the start of the Poco allegretto e misterioso. There are some captivating sonorities for the players, wonderfully played by the Schidloff Quartet. The misterioso marking is exactly what is provided in this strangely withdrawn music. The Vivace sheds any such contemplative thoughts as it scurries along. There are little swirling string motifs that again recall Tippett but this is distinctively Taylor’s own idiom. The music quietens to delicate phrases but the tempo is never less than forward moving though the coda is strangely quixotic.

The Schidlof Quartet does a wonderful job with some intensely dynamic and often sensitive playing.

Conflict and Consolation, Op. 19 – A Symphonic Drama for Brass, Timpani and Percussion, was commissioned by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra , a body that has done much for British music over many years. In its revised version it was first performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London in 1996. Conflict provides a raucous opening with brass, drums and timpani that soon drops to muted brass in a reflective passage. Various brass instruments, along with percussion, in a variety of motifs allow the music to be developed before the music builds back up as though the music is heading for a climactic coda, full of percussion and timpani in a solo section for percussion, a tremendous moment that, nevertheless, ends quietly. The members of the BBCSO percussion deserve much praise.

Muted brass quietly opens Consolation as the music slowly builds to little brass outbursts. A solo trumpet takes up the slow theme over the brass ensemble, with gentle percussion sounds, the brass of the BBCSO providing some lovely sonorities. Martin Brabbins draws great tension from his players as the music moves forward to successive peaks before the music quietens, with deep sounds of the tuba and delicate percussion as it moves towards the coda where the tuba is left alone.

All the recordings on this disc are excellent and there are first rate booklet notes by the composer.

Early this year (2013) Toccata Classics issued another recording of chamber works by Matthew Taylor, his String Quartets No’s 5, 6 and 7, performed by the Dante String Quartet , the Allegri String Quartet and the Salieri String Quartet respectively. 

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Taylor’s String Quartet No.5, Op 35 (2007/08) was commissioned by the Presteigne Festival of Music, an annual event that takes place just over the Herefordshire border into Wales not far from where I live, an event that does much to promote contemporary music. The composer states that, for many years, he had been attracted to the idea of writing a continuous work which begins with fast, volatile music and becomes progressively calmer as it evolves. The Allegro furioso opens with violent dissonances concealing a definite melody, but soon settles to a quiet rising and falling motif. The music quietly hints at the faster theme that eventually returns and throughout there is a strong sense of forward flow.

The end of the first movement flows straight into the Fuga: Largamente, intensivo that continues passionately with its fugal theme creating a bright surging motion that subsides with the players working over the theme. The music rises up with quietly, gently, swaying music, quite transparent until the last movement arrives, again without a break. In the Lullaby: Adagio the gently swaying nature of the music is retained with rocking of a gentle lullaby. Often the musical texture is spare and transparent yet still retaining warmth. There are hints of passion momentarily before the music fades into silence.

This terrific quartet has a natural organic progression and flow through its three movements and received an excellent performance from the Dante Quartet.

Commissioned by the Friends of the Little Missenden Festival and the RVW Trust, the String Quartet No. 6, Op. 36 (2006/08) was first performed in its entirety at the 2008 Little Missenden Festival. The opening Guibiloso has a joyful, rhythmically surging theme before the viola introduces a broader melody. This material is developed before a glissando passage leads to the Romanza: Andante moderato that continues quietly and gently before subtly rising and falling in intensity.  The music rises to a peak of passion before slowly falling back with lovely rich deep cello chords to end quietly. There is always an upward pull to the music in this glorious movement. The low, rich notes of the cello are continued into the Andante moderato from out of which a sustained passage for the cello grows before being shared individually on the different instruments of the quartet in this lovely slow movement ending high on harmonics. The Finale: Bacchanale – Con spirito e riotoso opens suddenly and full of energy and forward momentum, building on the material from the second movement. Even the energetic rhythm seems to connect to the rise and fall of the opening of the second movement. After a re-statement of the opening theme the work ends suddenly.

This is a magnificent quartet that rewards with repeated listening. The Allegris couldn’t be better, serving the composer so well.

Matthew Taylor’s String Quartet No.7, Op.37 (2008/09) was first performed by the artists on this disc, the Salieri String Quartet at the Conservatory, Barbican Centre, London in 2009. The year of completion for this work marked the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death and Mendelssohn’s birth, the string quartets of whom have, the composer tells us, made a lasting impact on his own thinking.

The Allegretto comodo opens with a strange little theme before building in complexity. Soon the opening idea returns and continues to develop before the music builds again in a swirling complex theme until quietening at the end. The Scherzo: Allegretto scorrevole provides quicksilver, fleeting music that develops, slightly manic and fast moving before falling back to quiet, skittish music before hurtling to an end. There is a slow, quiet and beautiful rising theme that opens the Adagio – Allegretto grazioso – Adagio - Allegretto grazioso with lovely rich, warm playing and some odd little tonal shifts. The music eventually lightens when the music seems to become rather more static before increasing in intensity and passion. In the later stages of the movement the music falls back to the opening motif before the allegretto theme re-appears, leading straight into the Finale: Animato ma misterioso where the music builds from strange hovering strings to a fuller sound, transparent, yet with a richness of texture. There is some lovely writing for strings, so well played by the Salieri Quartet. The music rises to a slight climax but soon eases off as the theme just dances along, restrained yet full of energy until it finally fragments.

These wonderful quartets are given first rate performances by the respective players. The recordings are first class and there are excellent booklet notes by the composer.

The Dutton Laboratories recording, featuring the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by the composer with Richard Watkins (horn) , opens with Matthew Taylor’s Symphony No.1 ‘Sinfonia Brevis, Op.2 (1985).  

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The composer was initially inspired after studying Haydn’s ‘Sturm und Drung’ (‘Storm and Stress’) symphonies. Commissioned and first performed by the Purcell Orchestra in 1985, the Molto moderato opens with a little burst of energy that is repeated before resuming the broader melody. There are lovely transparent textures and bursts of energy hinted at as the movement progresses, providing a forward momentum before quietly leading into the Pesante, with low strings hinting at the second movement theme where the music picks up the momentum whilst keeping a regular rhythmic pulse. There is the energy and overall impetus of Carl Nielson and Robert Simpson but with Taylor’s own stamp on every page. The music slows as the Poco meno commences with Taylor’s distinctive brass sounds that form a contrast to the flowing melody for strings and woodwind. When the fourth movement,Animato, arrives the rhythm gains extra pulse in the strings as this transparently scored movement progresses. Taylor’s orchestration is terrific with the theme passed around various sections of the orchestra and a gentle pulse that rises and falls. There is some terrific taut playing from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and, as the music flows over into the Poco e poco Rallentando Al Fin, it suddenly quietens with various instruments taking the theme until ending on the basses.

What a terrific symphony this is, especially given that it is an Op.2, written when the composer was just twenty one years of age.

Taylor’s Horn Concerto, op.23 (1999 rev. 2004) was written for the horn player on this recording, Richard Watkins and commissioned by the 1999 Ryedale Festival. It is in two parts with two movements in each part. Part One: Allegro Vigoroso opens with a striking horn motif before the orchestra joins between the horn motifs. Eventually a leisurely passage arrives with deep notes from the lower horn register. The orchestra leads to a flowing horn melody before arriving at a jaunty tune interrupted by the flowing orchestra. The music increases in intensity with lovely upward horn flourishes. Second movement of Part 1 is a Scherzo with Trio marked Scherzo – Vivace – Trio – Scherzo. A skittish string section with muted horn opens before the trio section, which has a mellow horn theme over a mainly string background. Eventually the scherzo returns with pizzicato basses, muted horn before a sudden horn outburst ends the movement.

Strings suddenly open the first movement of Part Two: Lento, Grave – Andante Grazioso – Lento, Grave before the horn enters much slower and relaxed, mournful even. The strings again leap up before imitating the horn theme that re-appears. After another upward leap from the strings, the horn continues its way as the andante arrives, the horn weaving a slow melody. It is the horn that suddenly leaps to open the return of the Lento, Grave before softening to continue its flow against a still orchestra. The Finale is marked Fuga: Homage to Max Reger – Allegro Vigoroso. Strings open playfully before the horn joins in the melody, becoming more strident from its quiet, mellow opening. The music builds to a climax for horn and orchestra, reaching a peak at the opening of the Allegro Vigoroso where horn and strings rise to repeated phrases before simply ending.

This is a really fine and enjoyable concerto, finely played by Richard Watkins.

Matthew Taylor’s Symphony No.3, Op.33 (2003-05) is also in two parts but this time just two movements, though with much varying tempi. Part One is marked Severo – Andante semplice – Animato – Vivace ma sempre agitato – Molto severo – Lamentoso – Mephisto Allegretto misterioso. It is the horns that make an upward flourish along with the orchestra, as though a warning before the mysterious flowing orchestra that follows. The woodwind head up a flowing, gentle section, a lovely melody with an upward pull before the strings then take the lead in an anxious swirl of sound, reminiscent of Tippett. The music falls to a quieter section with horn and timpani outbursts before low strings and a clarinet lead to the Andante semplice.   There is always an underlying pulse, a feeling of impending drama. A repeated clarinet motif leads to an increasingly dynamic section with horns sounding over the strings of the orchestra. After a series of climaxes the music seems to glide forward over a plateau. Brass and timpani interrupt before more relentless surges of sound, alternating with quieter playful passages, builds to a climax before dropping to a serene section for woodwind and strings. The Lamentoso arrives with a gentle swaying theme before a quizzical moment with timpani quietly sounding leads into the section marked Mephisto Allegretto misterioso where muted brass have a jazzy theme taken up by woodwind. The music has a swagger that bounces along and Taylor’s use of woodwind is terrific.

Part Two, marked Finale: L’istesso tempo poco e poco stringendo – Alllegro molto – Adagio molto – Lamentoso – Allegro Molto, arrives without much attention, merely allowing the theme a less rhythmic feel and recalling previous themes. Slowly the music increases in speed as it scurries ahead with frequent outbursts before arriving at a flowing section for strings and brass. The music becomes more agitated as the Mephisto swagger seems to slowly invade and eventually succeeds before falling into the Adagio molto – Lamentoso where the Lamentoso theme of the first part is heard. When the Allegro Molto arrives, strings push the music ahead increasingly faster recalling the opening section of the symphony. Timpani seem to hold the swaggering rhythm but they soon slow as the music ends on a note of questioning triumph.

This is a very fine symphony brilliantly performed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the composer. The recording made at St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London is excellent. Again Matthew Taylor provides excellent booklet notes.

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