Matthews: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Also, Variations for Strings; Double Concerto for Violin and Viola. Sara Trickey, violin; Sarah-Jane Bradley, viola. Kenneth Woods, English Symphony Orchestra and English String Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance NI 6382.

No, not the American pop performer Dave Matthews, founder and leader of the Dave Matthews Band. This is English composer David Matthews (b. 1943), known for his many orchestral, chamber, vocal, and piano works. Although, for that matter, conductor Kenneth Woods could probably do a great job conducting symphonic arrangements of Dave Matthews pieces, too; he seems fully capable of making anything sound good.

Whatever, David Matthews, like fellow British composer Philip Sawyers (another musician Maestro Woods has been recording lately) has the temerity to utilize things like melody, lyricism, and tonal harmony in his music, thereby flying in the face of much modern music and helping not only classical connoisseurs to enjoy it but everyday folks like me to appreciate it as well. In fact, speaking of the symphony here, Matthews says it began as a simple carol for his wife. "One day," he writes, "I was playing it on the piano and, beginning to improvise, I thought "I can turn this into something bigger, and why not a symphony?'" Thus began a journey into his Ninth Symphony.

The program begins, then, with the Symphony No. 9, Opus. 140, which he completed in 2016. It's not a very big symphony, nothing like Beethoven's, Schubert's, Bruckner's, or Mahler's. Instead, it's little more compact and a little less expansive. That is not to say it isn't large, however. The work is in five movements, a central slow movement reminiscent of Vaughan Williams, surrounded by two quick scherzos and bookended by an intriguing opening allegro and capped by a triumphant finale.

Kenneth Woods
The movements are fairly brief, though, and tend to go by rather quickly, with a series of varied tunes in each section. While I wouldn't say the whole is quite the sum of the individual parts, it is fun as it goes along, and Matthews hardly lets a moment go by in it that isn't fully charged. Or maybe that's partly Woods's contribution as well. Certainly, he does up the music with passion and color. Memorable? Not really, yet fun.

Next, we get Matthews's Variations for Strings, Opus. 40, written in 1986, based on Bach's "Die Nacht ist kommen" ("Night's darkness falleth"). The words are a "prayer for a peaceful night," so one might expect peaceful music, and for the most part it is. Maybe surprisingly, there are a number of jazz inflections throughout the piece, as well as contrasting pulses and rhythms. It's quite charming and original, actually.

The disc closes with Matthews's Double Concerto for violin, viola and strings, Op. 122, from 2013. The two soloists have a remarkably friendly rivalry in exchanges throughout the work, making it a delight in the hands of two such gifted musicians as Sara Trickey on violin and Sarah-Jane Bradley on viola. Maestro Woods and his string orchestra pretty much let them have full rein and do their best to just stay out of the way. Seriously, it's a terrific effort and became my favorite piece on the disc.

Producer and engineer Simon Fox-Gal recorded the symphony in May 2018 at St. George's, Bristol; and producer and engineer Philip Rowlands recorded the variations and double concerto in October 2018 at The Priory Church, Great Malvern. The first thing noticeable in the sound of the full orchestra is its spatial characteristics. It's not just nicely spread out across the speakers but nicely arranged front to back, with a good sense of ambient bloom from the acoustic. Then, too, the frequency response is wide, the dynamics realistic, the detailing sharply delineated, and the whole affair entirely lifelike. The string music, employing far fewer players, is understandably lighter and more transparent, and it appears a bit closer. Whatever, it's all good, enjoyable sound.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa