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American Record Guide: Fiercely transfixed on the great traditions of the quartet medium

November 10, 2015 — 

American Record Guide recently gave some high praise to Desautels Faculty of Music professor emeritus Michael Matthew’s latest CD.

Professor Matthew's CD cover

Professor Matthew’s CD cover

As the review reads:

…Michael Matthews (born 1950) has a sizable number of recordings, many sponsored by Canadian musical institutions. But Matthews is a far bolder and more adventurous artist, unconcerned with offering easy pleasures to an audience. He is, instead, fiercely transfixed on the great traditions of the quartet medium, particularly its evocation of inwardness—or innigkeit, as the Germans would say. The result of his efforts is complex, lapidary, deeply-felt music that penetrates at once into the individual psyche and outward to the vast, impersonal, and transcendent.

Matthews’s Second Quartet (2003) is in three movements that last about 25 minutes; Iis moderate in tempo, II very fast, and III—by far the longest—very slow. The language is fully chromatic and often rugged, though it avoids the exploded discontinuities of pointillism. It could be loosely described as post- Schoenbergian in its free use of dissonance and intricately interwoven motives; listeners who know the quartets of such composers as Leon Kirchner,   Gunther Schuller, Martin Boykan, Hugh Wood, and Andrew Imbrie, will have a general idea of the idiom, though Matthews never actually sounds like anyone else that I can identify.

It opens with sinuous pulsations that reappear through the movement though in different groupings and tempos; over and under these a volatile and entangled discourse threads its way, growing at several points to climaxes of impassioned urgency, then finally subsiding into a spare coda introduced by spectral harmonics and pizzicatos that concludes with the more humane and consoling sound of normal bowed strings: a tiny, epitaphium-like six-measure duo for viola and cello. This coda, in a way, epitomizes the worldview embodied in Matthews’s aesthetic: the distant, the numinous, the unknowable both arises from and encloses the intimate, the personal, the human. Our tiny lives pull our gaze inward, even as doing so expands our vision into the infinite space and time around us.

There is no let-down in the following two movements. II is a biting and rather Bartokian scherzo (though there are no “Bartokian” fingerprints in the music). Triple-meter rhythms predominate but the treatment of meter, tempo, and pacing is so fluid and supple (in all his quartet music) that the repetitive patterns, though easily perceptible, constantly shift and mutate in subtle ways. The 13-minute final adagio takes the quartet to its most sustained expressive power, its impassioned metaphysical speculations at last resolving in a serene epilogue that returns to the quiet pulsations that begin the quartet—a heartbeat, like our own, that fades into silence.

Listen to the music


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