Proms 2015: Colin Matthews – String Quartet No. 5 (European Première) & James MacMillan – Symphony No. 4 (World Première)

At the start of last week, the Proms saw important premières from two veterans of new music, Colin Matthews and James MacMillan. Both composers have a demonstrative relationship with music from earlier times, producing work that often seeks to find a comfortable marriage of old and new, looking back and forth simultaneously. The titles of both pieces bear some witness to this too, ostensibly bald, functional titles yet which carry centuries’ worth of connotation and legacy.

i don’t know any of the preceding numbers, but on the strength of Colin Matthews’ String Quartet No. 5, given its first European performance by the Apollon Musagète Quartet, i’d be interested to explore further. There’s little sense of pre-musical allusion through the work’s 13-minute duration; on the contrary, what Matthews has created is an intensely-focussed, almost claustrophobic world for the quartet to inhabit. It might be stretching the metaphor to describe it as ‘hermetically-sealed’, but there is the sense of being an outside observer of microcosmic activity. In many ways, the opening minutes say a lot about the piece as a whole, not so much beginning as faltering into sound through an extended opening of hesitant, halting fragments. It all sounds terribly laboured, and this permeates the entire work: for all its apparent light-footedness at times, the music carries an abiding sense of effort. It makes the more energetic episodes seem rather dream-like; fleeting, imaginary flights of fanciful agility, although they bring to the surface a hitherto unglimpsed level of passion. However, even here Matthews makes the music feel measured and emphatic, so while the sense is communicated, it remains an integral part of that same act of considerable effort. In this respect, the come-down following the work’s second climactic outburst is extremely telling, an increasingly laboured and pained collection of spasmodic echoes and afterthoughts. Matthews draws a line under this in a haunting epilogue that finds the quartet meandering like lost ghosts in thin, vaporous circles. Very impressive.

James MacMillan’s new Symphony No. 4, premièred by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by the work’s dedicatee, Donald Runnicles, was more overtly keen to make connections with earlier music. Specifically that of Robert Carver, the 16th century Scottish composer whose Dum sacrum mysterium mass setting is incorporated within the symphony as both allusion and direct quotation. But only here and there, and not for a while; MacMillan opens in the most magically arresting of ways, a gentle tinkling high above a deep, regular pulse, like a cross between a tolling bell and a heartbeat. Brass motifs are overlaid, piano and strings get involved, and everything tips over into rapidity and repetition, instruments jostling on top of each other. MacMillan then sweeps this aside for a lengthy episode of densely layered strings; this is so familiar territory for MacMillan that it jars a little, although not enough to cancel the music’s onward momentum. A big crescendo ushers in a syncopated, spiky section that ends up triggering an almighty eruption, fading into the first pre-musical reference, a thin evocation of overlapping fragments. This goes a lot further in disrupting MacMillan’s symphonic world, a jolting highlight on compositional artifice, having hitherto been immersed in ostensibly more spontaneous musical territory (not helped by the Tavener-esque string texture it evolves into). Things get back on track via the brass, and some nicely raucous clarinets over low metallic clangs; fanfares ensue and an imposing episode slave-driven along by the bass drum. The Symphony now reaches a point of high drama, pugilistic counterpoint, strings vs. brass and percussion, like two boxers squaring up. Punches are never thrown, though (a shame!); MacMillan creates a distraction on the piano and opts instead for a ritualistic paean underpinned by timpani strikes. A trivial escapade through clichéd Faberian territory (a fast octave-unison melody with assorted accents) culminates in a quasi-climactic melodic outpouring, answered by the second pre-musical reference. Now the atmosphere really is impacted; what these intrusions contribute or represent is impossible to fathom in the midst of MacMillan’s otherwise imaginatively generous music. The latter half of the piece is similarly conflicted; although never enough to derail the Symphony as a whole—the breadth of MacMillan’s explorations is impressively vast, both dramatically and structurally unpredictable, and his use of the orchestra is really striking throughout—yet the preoccupations with allusion and quotation become increasingly irritating, like an itch that desperately needs to be scratched. They do, repeatedly, break MacMillan’s spell, but that doesn’t change the fact that, through most of the rest of his Symphony No. 4, magic abounds.

Colin Matthews – String Quartet No. 5 (European Première)

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Colin Matthews – String Quartet No. 5
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James MacMillan – Symphony No. 4 (World Première)

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James MacMillan – Symphony No. 4
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3 Responses to Proms 2015: Colin Matthews – String Quartet No. 5 (European Première) & James MacMillan – Symphony No. 4 (World Première)

  1. Graham

    Magic abounds in MacMillan’s 4th Symphony? I’m afraid it escaped me!

    • 5:4

      Try again; second time lucky…

  2. Chris L

    Finally got round to listening to “Jimmy 4”, and, on the subject of allusion, at several points I found myself thinking of certain well-known, percussion-heavy “points of high drama” in Nielsen 4 and 5. I’m not convinced that my being reminded of them was deliberate on MacMillan’s part, mind…

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