DAVID MATTHEWS – A Modern First Quartet

British Contemporary composer David Matthews [born 1943] appears to have written at least 14 string quartets. I have only been exposed to the first 12, which have come out on a series of four CDs. As is to be expected from a composer of his time, the style of the recorded quartets is quite diverse. I have chosen the First Quartet, from 1970 and revised in 1980, for discussion. It is in six movements.

The first, slow movement sits very comfortably with me. Sustained tones are the order of the day, with single instrument incursions into an abstruse soundscape. A brief period of rhythmic pizzicato soon returns to the sustained tones, and further string interjections. A strong cello passage continues through a series of violin glissandos – I don’t hear a tonal centre here, which appeals to me. A move into a brief frenzy is soon doused, before the ensemble increases intensity in a frantic manner. This is music that has progressed past Bartok and Shostakovich, being definitely more confronting. A throbbing passage has a violin breaking free and strange harmonies from the ensemble leading to a frenzy which continues straight into the next movement.

What follows sounds a little like free jazz to me, although during its short duration there are no obvious jazz references. Considering that modern free jazz is more obscure than most modern string quartets, I shall leave it at that. The end is a sustained tone that again, leads into the next movement.

This commences with a mixture of sustained tones, glissandi and blocks of dissonant string sounds, with a violin expressing freely over what is a fascinating, atonal mood, with wonderful abstract writing. The slightly uncomfortable passage is melodic, with a droning accompaniment, as a violin gradually builds the intensity, before moving on to a new feeling. It is still all mostly about the violin, although the second violin does contribute some melodic material. An ever-changing, but always mysterious backdrop now supports the two violins, except for brief solo forays by the first violin. A rise in intensity creates a dense soundworld which ends abruptly. The return of the mysterious mood is a great pleasure.

It now seems to be that all of the movements run together as the fourth rises out of the end of the third. A solo pizzicato violin is prominent for a time, before it returns to bowed notes and a degree of glissandi, now with accompaniment. This is why I love string quartets, they go where other music doesn’t. A long section of indistinct, overlapping violin melodies combined with throbbing cello makes for a unique experience in sound. I’m not sure that I could describe it successfully, but find it fascinating.

Moving into the next movement, the texture is similar but features some motivic development involving all of the instruments. This music makes me wonder where and how the composer conceives such marvellous sounds, mostly not of this world. When an abstruse composer gets it right, I find the results enlightening. A brief section finds the violin soaring into the high register with a somewhat scattered cello line, before the accompaniment mellows.

A slight pause introduces the final movement with an animated, atonal approach. The texture is thick with strong instrumental assertions, and the music powers forward. The dissonance is palpable here, and a final atonal flourish concludes the work.

I feel that the music has some commonality with some free jazz that I have heard, for example, Ornette Coleman’s writing for strings. On the other hand the music sits firmly in British (or European) modernism from the 1970s. This has always been a fascinating period for me although sometimes it can produce more sound, noise even, than music. I’m sure most people would have a limit that they would be prepared to accept. In my opinion there are several composers who push this limit for non-musical purposes, but to appear to be seen as at the cutting edge. Gladly, this tendency is nowhere near as evident, at least in the last 20 years. Conversely, many composers have abandoned their experiments. As an example, Valentin Silvestrov has completely changed his approach over time, from the frantic to the placid.

I am very comfortable with the sounds on this CD, Complete String Quartets, Vol. 3, performed by the Kreutzer Quartet on the Toccata Classics label. It also contains the Second and Third Quartets. There are four volumes that drift in and out of availability. It can be found on the internet.

All four CDs are on Spotify and the First Quartet, along with many others are on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: A fine work of 1970s Modernism – sometimes harsh, but definitely to my liking.


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