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Symphony No.8, Op.131

Category Orchestral > Symphonies
Composed 2014
Duration (approx) 26 minutes

3 Flutes (III = piccolo), 3 oboes (III = cor anglais), 3 clarinets (III = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons, (III = contra bassoon), 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (2 players: glockenspiel, vibraphone, triangle, tambourine, large suspended cymbal, bass drum), harp, celesta, strings

Recording(s) David Matthews: A Vision of the Sea
Publisher Faber Music

Commissioned by BBC Radio 3.

First performance 17 April 2015
Venue Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Orchestra / Ensemble BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor HK Gruber
Review Hilary Finch, The Times, 20 April 2015

David Matthews didn't think he'd be writing any more symphonies. But the BBC Philharmonic liked his 2013 Proms piece, A Vision of the Sea, so much that they twisted his arm for an Eighth Symphony. Not that it took much twisting. There's a tang of sea here, too: at the end of the heady dances of the finale, there's a tingling downward glissando on the violins, inspired by vapour trails in the sky over Deal, in Kent. This is where a friend of Matthews lived and died - and that remembered sorrow darkens the symphony's slow movement, giving weight and depth to its otherwise euphonious sweet song. The entire symphony, with its confident, upbeat opening, its striding rhythms, its lush lyricism and its effortless yet highly accomplished invention, sounds as though it was a joy to write - and with the intention of giving great delight to its players and listeners.

Richard Whitehouse, Classical Source, 18 April 2015

It will come as no surprise to his admirers that David Matthews has continued with his symphonic odyssey, the Eighth Symphony (2014) both continuing on from its predecessor as well as opening up new lines of enquiry which will no doubt be pursued in due course. As with the Sixth in his cycle, Matthews has adopted a three-movement format, albeit with audibly greater expressive follow-through between them. Thus the first movement encloses its tensile and pugnacious sonata Allegro within the framework of an Andante whose initial circumspection becomes altogether more expansive and searching on its reappearance. The central Adagio is of an elegiac cast befitting its intention as a memorial (to the composer Norman Worrall), given added intensity through the fugue that gradually emerges in the strings to take the music up to a heightened recall of its main idea, and while the finale might seem intent on dispelling such solemnity, this sequence of "dance variations" takes on more ambiguous qualities as it moves toward a close of almost teasing understatement. The Eighth Symphony received an assured premiere from the BBC Philharmonic (heard to advantage in the spacious yet focussed acoustic of Bridgewater Hall) under the guidance of HK Gruber, who clearly relished the poised ambivalence of the outer movements in particular. Perhaps a degree more cumulative momentum would have been to the benefit of the finale, though such restraint was arguably in accord with music which is appreciably more than the sum of its parts - as further performances of this intriguing work will doubtless convey.

Jayne Lee Wilson, Friends of Radio 3 Forum:

Here we are with an Eighth Symphony from David Matthews. After an emotionally ambiguous slow introduction, comes a leaping, vaulting almost Straussian theme, an allegro energico in a seemingly conventional Romantic mood of aspiration, a quest looking for a climax; yet the focus, or the goal, seems unsure, and after around five minutes, the energies suddenly dwindle on a drumroll, followed by a mysterious and reflective slow section, recalling at greater length the mood and material of the opening andante, developing almost into an attacca slow movement itself (but just wait for the surprise, and the smile of the final chord...); and perhaps preparing the ground for the second movement.

That subtle uplift at the end of the first movement is soon dispelled. This is an intense adagio, a string-dominated elegy for a lost friend, and it really does seem the heart of the Eighth, based on two themes of remarkable beauty. You almost feel the Symphony was written to find a home, or a frame, for it. But the emotion is carefully shaped here: after about four minutes, a fugal section on a second theme begins, leading to an anguished climax where both melodies are combined, then a bleak, dark coda. This extraordinarily eloquent piece is one of Matthews' finest creations, even in an output rich in slow movements.

Nor should the carefree-seeming finale be taken as shallow or irresponsible; for now, the waves of grief have come to shore, and these four dances are for the most part, sensuous, delicate and atmospheric. The last is extended into a coda recalling all four dances in reverse order, woven from characteristic materials: in shimmering instrumentation, a pastoral oboe, distant trumpets, laughing, birdsong-like woodwind figures, then thematic fragments of the first dance drifting and fading towards the nocturnal close (like Mahler in the scherzos of his seventh and ninth, but here warm and glowing rather than nightmarish) which was surprisingly brusque, even a little throwaway - just a single quiet chord, like the distant shutting of a door.

This composer rarely if ever repeats himself. The Eighth is very distinct from the earlier, separate-movement symphonies 4 and 5, and the almost monothematic Seventh; it may even be a more imaginative (or at least more wide-ranging) piece than the latter.