Guest Columnist Five composers in three days

Earlier this month, I stopped in London for three evenings of concerts, accompanied by meetings with five composers. I had the good company of the brilliant young German music critic Jens Laurson, who joined me from his home in Munich.

Ignatius Press has agreed to bring out an expanded and revised edition of my book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music (initially published by Morley Press in 2002), and Laurson has generously consented to collaborate on it. We have already conspired on a list of composers whom we wish to add, including Walter Braunfels, Paul Juon, Robert Simpson, Joly Braga Santos, Ahmed Saygun, Othmar Schoeck, and Joseph Jongen. If you have not heard of these composers . . . well, that is the point of writing about them.

There are also living composers whom we will include, such as British composer David Matthews, in whose music I am currently immersing myself. One reason for being in London was to meet him. We also had the good fortune to visit with Stephen Hough, the noted pianist, who is now devoting more time to composition; Robin Walker; and Lionel Sainsbury. I also introduced myself briefly to Ian Wilson after the première of his lovely string quartet piece Her Charms Invited.

First off was the Stephen Hough/Steven Isserlis recital at that temple to chamber music, Wigmore Hall, on the evening of April 8. I had my old seat back in row W, which was fine because of this hall's perfect acoustics. It was a variegated program for piano and cello, including an arranged version of Bach's Adagio BWV 564, Busoni's Kultaselle, Brahms Cello Sonata No. 1, two Liszt pieces, and the Grieg Cello Sonata. After the warmth of Bach, the two artists played with razor-sharp precision in the densely crowded Busoni piece. In the Brahms, Isserlis was mellow and then passionate, with great warmth in his playing. His mellowness contrasted with Hough's spiritedness. Hough's strength was evident in the Brahms, and then his shimmering delicacy and the lovely lightness of his touch in the Liszt pieces, in which he created the nearly impressionistic, gently rippling background for the singing cello line. In terms of interpretive stance, it seemed to me as if Isserlis was reaching in and Hough was reaching out. This contrast made the pairing interesting. They seemed best matched in the Grieg, with Hough again delivering some very exciting playing.

The next day, Laurson and I had a leisurely lunch with Hough to learn more about his composing activities. Interestingly enough for a piano virtuoso, he is not especially concentrating on his own instrument, but writing for chamber groups, singers, and choral groups. Particularly exciting is the upcoming American première of his Mass, titled Oremus Missa Mirabilis, written for Westminster Cathedral, initially for organ and choir. He has since orchestrated it, and this version will be heard in Indianapolis next April 6-7. I hope I can be there.

Next evening we attended a concert at Cadogan Hall, a converted Christian Science church south of Mayfair, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Robertas Servenikas. The musical attraction was the première of Peter Fribbins's Piano Concerto, played with panache by Diana Brekalo. It was, in a way, a concerto on an ostinato (made up of a trill-like motif), which was obsessively held by the orchestra, and then commented upon by the piano, either through variations or repetitions. To make the obsessive successfully compulsive and compelling, one had better be writing at the level of a Shostakovich. While daring and obviously talented, Fribbins is not there yet. The trill became a drill.

It was, however, a pleasant occasion on which to meet David Matthews, his wife Jennifer, and his friend and composer Robin Walker. I was deeply flattered that Matthews had showed Walker a copy of Surprised by Beauty and that Walker had been browsing through it, and was taken by the emphasis on the "sacred," which he said he shared. I have since gone to his website and listened to intriguing excerpts from his orchestral work, The Stone Maker, and I Thirst for string quartet. That music like this may lie fallow is the whole purpose of my efforts to find it and cry out: "Listen." Walker and I also spoke of the archetypical experience of late 20th-century composers, agonizing their way through the dyspeptic rigors of Schoenberg's serialism, before breaking free to tonality and the rich tradition of Western music.

I met again with Matthews the next day for a longer conversation about his music. He is the rare kind of intrepid composer who never succumbed to the serial system, despite Pierre Boulez's proclamation of the utter irrelevance of those who did not. His reward was relative obscurity -- until now, that is, as a spate of new recordings is bringing his significant body of work to larger public view. This includes more than a half-dozen symphonies (see the Dutton label), a dozen string quartets (see the emerging cycle on Toccata Records), and various concerti and vocal works. Last May, I said of the Toccata release of Quartets Nos. 4, 6, & 10 (TOCC 0058) that it represented "musical thinking of the highest order and quartet writing in the great tradition of Beethoven, Bartok, Britten, and Tippett, all of whom Matthews mentions as influences." Matthews's newest chamber piece is his String Quartet No. 12. It is 45 minutes long, and I cannot wait to listen to it on the next Toccata release.

In general, Matthews's work is so steeped in tradition that one must be acquainted with tradition to appreciate it fully. This does not mean that the music does not work on its own terms -- only that those are its terms. It requires a level of literacy. As he said to me, it helps "to know the tradition so people can see what I am doing new with it." Likewise, you cannot thrill to Jacobean drama completely unless you know the Elizabethan drama that preceded it.

Matthews told me that his symphonic style at first emerged from Central European influences, particularly that of Alban Berg. Gradually, his music moved from under Berg's spell and became less angular and more consonant -- more engaged with tonal counterpoint. He described his Seventh Symphony, which I have not yet heard, as a kind of Sibelian one-movement symphony, also matched with Mahler's Seventh and its use of the tenor horn.

Here is my provisional assessment of Matthews's music, on which I will be reporting in greater detail later. Against the prevailing trends that have kept his work in semi-obscurity, his music emerges as a sign of hope. Matthews has absorbed the vocabulary of modernism without succumbing to it. He turns it to a different purpose -- away from the construction of a self-absorbed autonomy and toward something higher than itself. He knows that beauty is a sign of transcendence. His music is a form of semaphore, flagging signals to us through the fog that the light will not be extinguished. In other words, the yearning expressed in Matthew's work is not in vain. It is aimed at more than a possibility -- a kind of certain hope for an inexpressible fulfillment of which beauty is the promise. Deny beauty, and you deny the promise. Matthews, no matter how occasionally difficult his music may be, enhances the beauty by struggling for it and to it. I think this is why his work is so rich, so filled with incident and thick with crosscurrents. No matter how many times I have listened to a piece of his, there is always still more there. Needless to say, there will be a chapter on him in the new edition of Surprised by Beauty.

Next evening, we met with composer Lionel Sainsbury, who guided us to a marvelous event in the London Chamber Music Series, held at Kings Place. The Badke Quartet played Haydn (Sting Quartet Op 33, No.1), Janacek (Quartet No. 2), the aforementioned Ian Wilson -- a lovely, keening, Celtic lament -- and Dvorak (Quartet No. 12, American). In Haydn, the relatively new first violinist (three months vintage), Lana Trotovsek, played brilliantly, but tended to dominate.  Balance could have been better. This was irrelevant in the Janacek, in which each player is given a starring role -- and star they did. From the eerie harmonics to the wildly passionate outbursts, the Badke fully expressed the yearning, heartache, and piercing wail in this pulsing piece of musical flesh. Success in this music requires both incredible discipline and a sense of abandon. The Badke performance still reverberates within me. It was stunningly good -- worth the trip by itself.

I should mention that the warm wooden interior of Hall One, in which the Badke played, is constructed from a single 500-year-old German oak. The acoustics are splendid. The concert was part of the Sunday evening series sponsored by the London Chamber Music Society, of which Fribbins is the musical director. Put it on your itinerary when you are next in London.

The meeting with Sainsbury was arranged by internet. A Google alert brought my February review of his Violin Concerto on Dutton (CDLX 7245) to his attention ("a reason to fall in love with British music all over again," I said) and he sent a note thanking me. I then told him I would be in London the following week, and voila!  Sainsbury told me that he, too, had gone through a period of writing modern-style music that was not his, but then he encountered the melodic warmth of Samuel Barber and William Walton and found his own voice. He also remarked, "Sibelius is a huge influence on me." Of his general orientation, he said, "It's about emotion. I'd rather not write anything at all than write something without feeling." If that sounds appealing, you will be waiting as expectantly as I for the release of Sainsbury's Cello Concerto later this year on the Dutton label.

It was interesting to have met two contemporary composers whose music has been so influenced by Sibelius -- Matthews and Sainsbury. As it turns out, with Laurson's encouragement, my only significant CD purchase in London was of the last Colin Davis Sibelius cycle, with the London Symphony Orchestra, on its house label, LSO Live (LSO 0191). Laurson, as usual, was right about its quality. I am immensely enjoying these recordings.

This talk of Sibelius brought to mind the composer's prolonged silence at the end of his life (30 years) and his heavy use of alcohol. Why did Sibelius sometimes drink himself silly? I am not trying to excuse it but to understand it. I think that genius at his level brings one into a close encounter of the divine kind. One does not emerge unscathed or un-scorched from this contact. To carry this mark is not only a gift; it is a burden. Having received a premonition of the far country, how can one bear not being there? Alcohol is one, inadequate answer -- a way of losing oneself. In his art, Sibelius was so successful in taking us with him that I almost cannot listen to, say, the Fifth Symphony without pouring several stiff drinks to help with the altitude sickness afterwards. How much I want this music to be true!

In fact, I know it is true -- but not here, not yet. In the meantime, have another drink -- or, even better, pray.

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