English Chamber Orchestra/Paul Watkins – review

Kings Place, London

When will artists give the cuckoo the press it deserves? That it is heard by smug early-morning, early-spring walkers evidently brings out the dewy-eyed watercolourist in all who depict it, but this conniving monster explores a realm of behavioural depravity unknown to most humans. Composers are often the worst offenders, though David Matthews, in his new and irrepressibly charming suite for string orchestra, Three Birds and a Farewell, paints his cuckoo with a welcome irony, using hoarse viola harmonics suggestive of something trying to sound sweeter than it really is.

The five movements of Three Birds are, in fact, more inspired by folk than bird songs, and all luxuriate in an invigorating blend of wit and wistfulness. Hearing this, together with Total Tango and a stirring performance of the viola concertino Winter Remembered with Sarah-Jane Bradley as soloist, was a wonderful reminder of the depth and reach of Matthews' consummate artistry. A figure once considered awkwardly out of step with his time, his highly original ear and masterful craftsmanship may lead historians to accord him greater respect than his contemporaries always have.

He bears comparison, in this respect, with Sibelius, who felt ill at ease with his epoch but is now considered completely central. The best known of Sibelius's works in this fascinating programme contrasting himself and Matthews was the Valse Triste, but performed here in its original guise as the first movement of a suite for string orchestra, Kuolema (Death). It was given a beautifully pitched performance by the ECO under Paul Watkins and the impressive young soloists Lucy Roberts (soprano) and Johnny Herford (baritone), and I was amazed to learn that the performance was this country's first. Composed to illustrate a play of sublime gloominess by his brother-in-law Arvid Järnefeld, the music is exquisitely haunting. I hope to hear it, and the soloists, again soon.


Guy Dammann

The GuardianTramp

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