MUSIC / The old fashioned new fashioned: Stephen Johnson on David Matthews' 50th birthday concert at the Purcell Room

We've been through The Shock of the New, and already the shock of the old is beginning to lose its edge - if that's quite the word. These days there's no surprise in finding a composer cultivating traditional forms and manners; the surprise is in finding it done well.

At his best David Matthews does it very well, as his Purcell Room 50th Birthday Concert showed. Otherwise? Certainly there were problematical things. Perhaps the unfashionably Larkin-inspired Long Lion Days for cello and piano might have sounded more 'incandescent' (Matthews' own description) in a more confident performance - the surprise here was in finding the accomplished cellist Jane Salmon on insecure form. The scherzo of the String Trio, op 48, certainly 'utilizes some of the cliches of the contemporary vernacular', but I can't say that it threw much new light on them. If there was an ironic strand, the Schubert Ensemble's performance didn't draw it out. Nor was it easy to see why the Piano Sonata, op 47, broke into rag-time in the finale, or joked nervously about major-minor triads at the end.

But even amidst such passing doubtful details there are first rate ideas, finely developed. The slow movement of the String Trio showed one of Matthews' greatest strengths: natural melodic lines, naturally and tellingly harmonized. In this age of minimalism, robotic pop and rap, it sometimes seems that rhythm has triumphed over lyricism - that music has forgotten how to sing. The attempts of some neo-romantics to restore the art can make the hardest Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies seem effortlessly lyrical in comparison. Matthews himself has had problems in arriving at an unself-conscious, freely expressive linear style, but the works in this concert suggest that he has been getting there comfortably over the last few years. The slow movement of the String Quartet No 6, op56, composed as an elegy for the art critic Peter Fuller, was another finely worked, song-based movement, which seemed to relate organically to the fast movements that enclosed it, even when one knew that they were composed afterwards - though I still wonder if it's a good idea for composers to admit to such goings-on in the company of critics.

Matthews isn't simply a tune-plus-accompaniment man however. He's a fluent, firm contrapuntalist - another rare ability on the current scene. In the Quartet and the Trio this often revealed itself in familiar devices - clearly signalled imitations or motifs dynamically combined. But in what looks like the star piece of the evening, the Concertino for Oboe and String Quartet, op42, the freedom, ingeniousness and vitality in the way lines and colours clashed and danced about one another was as unconventional as it was uplifting. Matching the vivid events to the story-line added another level of pure enjoyment, as did the vigorous, alert playing of oboist Melinda Maxwell and the Brindisi Quartet. Is 50 too late to be a promising composer? Perhaps, and anyway pieces like the Concertino show that he has gone further than that. Still, there's reason to hope for much from David Matthews.

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