Live review – Sinfonia Tamesa & Matthew Taylor – Ethel Smyth Serenade & Brahms Third Symphony

Sinfonia Tamesa / Matthew Taylor

St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London
Saturday 9th March 2019

Schumann Genoveva Op.81 – Overture (1850)
Smyth Serenade in D major (1890)
Brahms Symphony no.3 in F major Op.90 (1883)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Now into its eighteenth season, Sinfonia Tamesa has never been an orchestra afraid to ring the changes when it comes to programming. Tonight was no exception, with a rare hearing for Dame Ethel Smyth‘s Serenade to commemorate International Woman’s Day.

Not that this substantial piece proved unworthy of revival on its own merits. Brahms (whom Smyth admired above all others) is the obvious influence here, but Dvořák is equally evident in the rhythmic lilt and deft woodwind writing of its inner movements, an energetic scherzo followed by a hardly less animated intermezzo, and Matthew Taylor secured playing as lithe as it was incisive. He also brought out those expressive contrasts as make up for the opening Allegro’s lack of textural variety and ensured an underlying propulsion that carried the rather repetitious finale on to its decisive close. No major rediscovery, but a likeable and engaging work by a composer who wrote all too little purely orchestral music; should Tamesa choose to schedule Smyth’s masterly Double Concerto for Horn and Violin, then so much the better.

Framing this piece was music by Schumann and Brahms. The former’s only opera, Genoveva was a failure at its premiere and only infrequently revived today, but its melodic appeal helps compensate for some foursquare characterization – the overture making an effective concert item on its own terms. Some shaky intonation robbed the introduction of mystery, but what followed found a viable balance between agitation and an affirmation which (as also in the opera) ultimately wins through – evident here in the surging optimism of those closing bars.

After the interval came Brahms’s Third Symphony, its quiet ending merely one of the reasons why this is the least-often heard of the cycle. From the outset, Taylor secured the right tempo for an opening movement that can easily lose shape and direction; finding winsome charm in the second theme, before judging the development’s relaxation then accruing of momentum with assurance. The coda’s transfigured poise (Brahms’s riposte to Tristan?) carried over into the Andante, whose melodic simplicity belies an emotional ambiguity which was teased out from its ruminative asides before being made explicit in those confiding final pages. Good to hear what followed taken not as an unintentional slow movement, but rather an intermezzo whose pathos is accentuated by its deftly propelled motion. The finale brought a culmination in all respects, and though ensemble faltered during more dynamic passages, a sure impetus was sustained across the reprise (the thrilling modulation into which was tangibly conveyed) then a coda that recalls the work’s initial motto with a mingling of aspiration and benediction.

Make no mistake, this was a convincing and insightful take on a symphony of which such readings are still an exception to the rule. A fine showing, too, for Sinfonia Tamesa, which will return to St James’s on 6th July for a Rachmaninov programme under Matt Andrews.

For further information on Sinfonia Tamesa, visit the orchestra’s website – and for more on Matthew Taylor, click on this link

On record: The Waldegrave Ensemble – Matthew Taylor: Chamber Music Vol.3 – Music for Winds (Toccata)

Taylor Chamber Music, Volume Three: Music for Winds

The Waldegrave Ensemble and friends

Introduction and Capriccio op.7 (1990)
Trio in memoriam VH op.21 (1997/2018)
Serenata Trionfale op.34 (2005)
Wind Quintet op.51 (2014-15)
Skål! (2004)

Toccata Classics TOCC0486 [54’16”]

Producer/Engineer Michael Whight
Recorded July 20-21 at Trinity United Reformed Church, Wimbledon; Trio recorded March 3 2018 at St Barnabas, Mitcham

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A further disc from Toccata Classics of Matthew Taylor (b. 1964) focussing on his not inconsiderable output for wind ensemble, played by musicians who have worked with this composer on numerous occasions and have a sure understanding of his unmistakable idiom.

What’s the music like?

Most substantial in actual content are the two pieces for wind octet. Among Taylor’s earliest acknowledged works, Introduction and Capriccio comprises an opening section that exudes an ominous expectancy, duly offset by the main section which, with its vaunting motion and ever more demonstrative exchanges, provides a succinct yet eventful showcase for what is still a largely untried medium. Any stylistic uncertainty has been ironed out by the time of Serenata Trionfale, a companion piece to Nielsen’s Serenata in vano and proffering a rather different scenario from its deadpan stoicism. Formally Taylor’s work unfolds in deceptively Classical fashion from the alluring harmonies and unforced motion of its initial Andante, via the impetuous exchanges (not a little Tippett-like) of its scherzo then the more nuanced and often speculative dialogue of its intermezzo, to a finale whose bewitching introduction from offstage oboe is succeeded by a Presto which drives forward to its suitably uproarious close – the taciturn protagonist having in this instance been purposefully and successfully wooed.

Mention of Nielsen is a reminder his Wind Quintet remains unequalled in this genre. Taylor plays oblique tribute to in with Skål!, a jeux d’esprit that coincidentally offers a masterclass in how to fit the maximum allusions to Nielsen’s six symphonies into a minimal time-span (that to the First Symphony might well take some spotting). Only recently has Taylor essayed a Wind Quintet, and here the underlying model is not Nielsen but Malcolm Arnold. Its seven short movements play continuously – beginning with a lively Preludio festivo then taking in a skittish Hornpipe and Pensive Waltz with more than a hint of wistfulness; followed by a teasing Habanera and energetic Tarantella, before a Pastorale evinces the most searching and soulful music prior to an Epilogue which brings the whole work infectiously full circle.

That leaves the Trio in memoriam VH for flute, violin and cello, a typically individual tribute to the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-96). The opening movements are both marked Allegretto, with the elegant interplay and often reticent expression of the former (pointedly marked ‘innocente’) finding potent contrast in the playful manner of its successor; the work closing with a Moderato whose plangent musing draws on timbral shadings of real poise and finesse. Taylor’s commemoration results in the deepest and most eloquent music on this disc.

Does it all work?

Yes. Taylor has an instinctive feel for wind instruments (not surprising given he played the oboe during his formative years), evident throughout those works featured here – idiomatic and innovative despite (or even because of?) the absence of ‘advanced’ playing techniques.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Performances by the Waldegrave Ensemble and associated musicians do full justice to this music’s distinctive qualities, abetted by a recording that affords clarity without undue closeness of perspective. Taylor himself provides the informative and amusing booklet notes.

You can read more about this release and listen to clips on the Toccata Classics website, or listen in full on Spotify below:

Matthew Taylor’s composer website can be found here, while for more on the Waldegrave Ensemble click here

Kensington Symphony Orchestra – 60th anniversary concert

Kiandra Howarth (soprano), Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo-soprano), Epiphoni ConsortPegasusVox CordisKensington Symphony Orchestra / Russell Keable

Barbican Hall, London, Monday 15 May 2017

Matthew Taylor Symphony no.4, Op. 54 [KSO commission: World premiere]

Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

A near-capacity audience greeted this 60th anniversary concert by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and its principal conductor Russell Keable (below) – who, in a sign of continuity rare in the modern era, assumed that role from the orchestra’s founder Leslie Head over three decades ago.

Throughout its history, the KSO has been an advocate of British music past and present, and this evening was no exception in its witnessing the first performance of the Fourth Symphony by Matthew Taylor. Four years ago, the orchestra gave a memorable reading of his tone poem Storr and this new work was hardly less impressive. An in memoriam to composer and pianist John McCabe, and dedicated to his widow Monica, the 27-minute piece falls into three continuous movements. The first, pointedly marked Scherzo, maintains its initial energy across various changes of dynamics and texture (some evocative writing for woodwind and harp redolent of Tippett) then subsides from its impassioned climax to a central Adagio where strings take the foreground in music of textural richness and expressive warmth – both amply sustained here.

On first hearing, the Finale buffa was slightly less successful. Beginning at a rather jarring remove from what went before, its nonchalant humour (not a little reminiscent of Malcolm Arnold) sounded forced rather than provocative; its seeming lack of substance not bolstered by a deftly scored intermezzo-like episode which itself waylaid the denouement. This latter, though, was powerfully controlled up to a climax that recalled the work’s opening theme on the way to a close the more decisive for its succinctness; the music literally coming to a halt.

Make no mistake, this was a characterful and absorbing work from a born symphonist, and any reservations about the finale might well disperse in the light of further performances. Not that there was much to fault on this occasion, with Keable drawing a dedicated response from the KSO to reaffirm its status as the finest non-professional orchestra in London (arguably the UK). Taylor’s exacting yet always practicable writing also benefited from the immediacy of the Barbican acoustic, not least that for two timpanists which propelled the opening and close.

Certainly, the orchestra sounded more consistently at its best here than in Mahler’s Second Symphony which followed the interval. This is a work often pressed into service on notable occasions (memory recalls its inclusion in the first concert at Copenhagen’s Koncerthuset in 2009 after the premiere of Per Nørgård’s Seventh Symphony), on basis of its epic conception and overall impact. Qualities as were often in evidence here, not least an opening movement whose literalness did not prevent a pathos emerging out of the music’s heightened emotions.

Both the lilting Andante and sardonic scherzo were fluently if unexceptionally rendered, with Caitlin Hulcup giving a soulful rendition of the pivotal Urlicht setting. Keable then steered a secure course through the vast finale, giving its extremes of motion and expression room to unfold without risk of diffuseness. Kiandra Howarth made an appealing contribution, while the combined choruses saw the climactic setting of Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode through to a blazing apotheosis. The KSO’s next 60 years were duly launched in no uncertain fashion.

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website