Benjamin Britten isn’t the only British composer with an anniversary this year, and I’m not talking about the 450-year-old John Dowland. David Matthews is 70, and a birthday concert from the Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall last Tuesday presented several of his works in tribute. Despite the absence of scheduled soprano Claire Booth, this was an evening filled with the high-quality music-making that should be expected from the Nash Ensemble, as well as some beautiful compositions.

David Matthews © Maurice Foxall
David Matthews
© Maurice Foxall

The three works of Matthews’ which were played were the Clarinet Quartet Op. 35, The Sleeping Lord Op. 58 for soprano and chamber ensemble, and the new work A Blackbird Sang Op. 121, here receiving its première. All demonstrated his considerable gift for writing elegant, attractive chamber music in an approachable style. While Britten and Tippett perhaps loomed large in the background this evening, there was plenty to enjoy in these sprightly and sometimes mysterious pieces.

A Blackbird Sang is based around a four-note song which awoke Matthews from his garden one morning. He writes in the programme note that he was struck by how unusually tonal the blackbird’s short melody was, and his piece perhaps follows suit, gently elaborating on and around the song with a spring in its step which eventually becomes a waltz. The piece is dedicated to the Nash Ensemble’s flautist Philippa Davies, who worked her way through three sizes of flute in this performance, all with a beautiful, avian sound. The Clarinet Quintet, which opened the concert, was similar in tone, though subtle hints of something darker cut through the gentle closing stages of the second movement.

The Sleeping Lord was the most substantial of the three Matthews pieces on the bill; it sets the final few lines of Anglo-Welsh writer David Jones’ poem of the same name. It’s a curious, almost mystic passage of text, and it drew the most elusive music from the composer, beginning with a series of finely drawn, almost expressionistic chords. The vocal writing, in contrast, was clear and melodic, and dispatched with skill by Gillian Keith, whose prior familiarity with the work no doubt helped to make her seem little like the last-minute substitute she was. That said, I wasn’t sure her wide vibrato quite matched the setting’s clarity. The Sleeping Lord ends by slipping into a calmer idiom, in a long instrumental section which slightly dilutes the incisive nature of the opening.

Also heard were Julian Anderson’s Prayer, a beautiful solo viola miniature which Lawrence Power played with panache, and the première of James Francis Brown’s A Dream and a Dance, a gentle, pleasant chamber work. Particularly impressive in this piece was the conducting of Ian Brown, who may be more commonly found at the piano but is a hugely assured figure with the baton as well; he lent this piece (and also The Sleeping Lord) a keen sense of shape which ensured that it flowed along with great grace.

The amiability of all the music in the programme tonight was ample proof that new classical music is not always revolutionary, dissonant or upsetting in nature. It tends to be those pieces and composers that are that make the headlines, for what I suppose are obvious reasons, but if what you want is a milder contemporary music, then this can most certainly also be found. And how much more exciting to hear a new piece come into existence, as we did this evening, than to hear something already known again.

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