Matthews: Music For Solo Violin, Vol. 1

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D. MATTHEWS Three Studies, op. 39. 15 Fugues . Winter Journey Peter Sheppard Skærved (vn) TOCCATA 0152 (60:48)

It would be hard to imagine a better way for those interested in David Matthews’s compositions for solo violin to immerse themselves in them. Peter Sheppard Skærved’s collection offers performances by the violinist for whom Matthews wrote the pieces, as well as extensive notes (to read booklet notes accompanying Toccata’s releases will in itself, for many, be to experience ultimate immersion) by both composer and performer.

As Matthews himself relates in the notes, Skærved’s program opens with the Three Studies he wrote as a test piece for the 1986 Carl Flesch Competition. Skærved considers this the most straightforward work he’s included. Playing the 1698 Joachim Stradivari, he soars in the high-tessitura passages of the first study; but in the second—more agitated, more dissonant, and less centered tonally—he sets foot in another expressive world. The third begins skittishly but settles into wandering passages that again rise up high in the instrument’s registers. But the journey is beset by strong, visceral interjections that rely on tremolos for the potency of their effect.

The 15 Fugues that follow form an integral set; and both the composer and the violinist note that all non-contrapuntal episodic material has been extruded. Although the composer considers the First Fugue’s style neo-Bachian, listeners may hear more of Béla Bartók’s Solo Violin Sonata in it than anything of Johann Sebastian Bach’s. (The theme itself comes from a four-note pattern in the fugal Finale of Mozart’s String Quartet, K 387.) The harmonies of the Second and Third fugues bear affinities to the shifting tonalities of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Solo Violin Sonatas. Matthews identifies the Third Fugue as pastoral, and the voices of both Bach and Ysaÿe emerge fleetingly from its passages. Each of the fugues bears a dedication to one of Matthews’s friends or associates, and the notes trace these connections, at times citing correspondence that gives the dedicatee’s reaction to the work dedicated. Matthews even constructed the theme of the Fifth Fugue from the letters of two friends’ first names, although nothing in either the theme or its working out seems in the least artificial. The Sixth Fugue, composed as a wedding gift ( Allegro festivo ) showcases Skærved’s strong rhetorical flair for this music; while the Seventh, played pizzicato throughout, recalls Ysaÿe’s statement of the Dies irae at the beginning of the third movement of his Second Solo Sonata, although this statement’s more rigorously polyphonic (Skærved notes that Matthews had heard him play only the Fourth of Ysaÿe’s sonatas). Matthews based the Seventh of the fugues on the song of a blackbird he heard at his mother’s house. The Eighth, more dissonant and more polyphonic at the same time, recalls again the most severe moments in Bartók’s Solo Sonata. The Ninth may sound violinistically ungrateful in its center, but it resolves into a conclusion laced with harmonics. Both Matthews and Skærved note that the 10th Fugue, the first in order of composition, started its life as a tentative response after the composer had heard the violinist play Bach’s First Solo Sonata. Skærved, having tried the first page of Matthews’s offering, encouraged the composer to complete it, then asked for more—thus the complete set. The 13th Fugue, tremolo, exploits a device that Bartók also used, though in a much more limited way, in the opening of the Finale of his Solo Sonata; it also features a second half that inverts the first—a trick that delighted Renaissance and Baroque composers and that 20th-century composers adopted with considerably greater rigor. Here, the effect hardly seems at all unnatural, perhaps due in large part to the ardor of Skærved’s advocacy. The 14th Fugue calls for the G-string to be tuned to F?, the dominant of the Fugue’s key of B minor. The last Fugue, dedicated to Matthews’s wife, concludes the set with a warmly glowing tribute.

Winter Journey , a work of substantial length (13 minutes) brings the program to a conclusion. According to Matthews, it’s autobiographical and bears traces of Schubert’s cycle Die Winterreise , although the composer also claims to have had the sound of Bach’s Chaconne in mind. At times mournfully improvisational, the work explores what some may consider a wider range of emotions than do the fugues, diverse as they may be. The force of Skærved’s musical personality (and the composer’s) may emerge perhaps fully in this multifaceted work, coherent and strongly narrative (at least emotionally) through all its slashing dissonance.

The engineers have provided the entire program with a most flattering showcase. But anyone who has the slightest interest in David Matthews’s work should find everything about the production illuminating, while violinists and more general listeners should find in Winter Journey a musical ocean in which they might swim virtually forever. Very strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Robert Maxham

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: TOCC0152

  • UPC: 5060113441522

  • Label: Toccata Classics

  • Composer: David Matthews

  • Performer: Peter Sheppard Skaerved