classical music: double play; Matthews: Broken Symmetry; Suns Dance; Fourth Sonata London Sinfonietta / Oliver Knussen (DG 447 067-2)

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If anyone can raise Deutsche Grammophon's contemporary profile, Oliver Knussen can. He must be thinking it's Christmas: a new contract - a free hand (?). How long before the commercial restraints go on? We must wait and see. And listen. Colin Matthews is a promising place to start: he isn't trendy, he certainly isn't "commercial" - not of the "new age" or "faith minimalist" persuasion. He's just a rather good composer.

We join him first in 1974 with a big, gestural - and very visceral - orchestral piece entitled Fourth Sonata (with "Sonata" in its purest sense meaning "sounding piece"). "Intensification" is initially the name of the game, a single D trajectory hurtling into space, gathering matter, and substance, and the other 11 notes of the chromatic scale. We hear the beginnings of something aspiring, struggling to emerge in the strings, only to be consumed in the enormous welter of sound. As they say across the water, here's a composer knows where he's coming from. Literally. That could only be Mahler glimpsed in the falling horns and high, bird- like oboes of the central lamentation; and there's something of Bernstein's harmonic and intervallic colour (a biblical, Hebraic charge) in the highly emotive string writing. As for the "new age" heaven on earth that ends the piece (obligatory tuned percussion arpeggios to the fore), at least it's inconclusive - ie unresolved. The door is open for better, and bigger, things.

Like the latest of these works, Broken Symmetry, a kind of mechanised apotheosis of the Mahlerian Scherzo with all the parody and gritty resilience that entails. Ferocious drummings drive the engines, and yet the energy feels self-perpetuating - there is a very real sense of spontaneous evolution. And that's a quality that Suns Dance - perhaps the most original and inventive of these pieces - rejoices in.

Spontaneous evolution, perpetual motion. Just 10 players tripping the light fantastic. Each gets "a turn" centre-stage: the contra-bassoon, whose footwork gets the thumbs-down from a stopped horn; the viola, whose merry dance is entirely out of character; and little-and-large - piccolo and double-bass - the latter literally getting one over on his small friend at one point.

Matthews cleverly taps into the individualities of his instrumental protagonists, while brilliantly harnessing their collective energy. It's only when the strings lay down their static chords in the coda that you suddenly realise your feet haven't touched the ground. But then, since when have the London Sinfonietta been afeared of flying?

EDWARD SECKERSON

Definitely not music for a languid summer's evening. The energy in all these pieces is terrific, and Matthews expects you to meet him at least half-way. It's a long time since I've felt so exhausted at the end of a disc. Even The Rite of Spring and Birtwistle's Earth Dances have relatively relaxed moments; here only the Fourth Sonata offers anything like momentary repose. For the rest, it's dance until you drop - or until Matthews lets you drop. But if you're in the right mood, this is exhilarating, even uplifting stuff.

The background to Broken Symmetry is the Mahlerian Scherzo, with the scenery pervaded now by Birtwistle, now by Sibelius, or suddenly possessed by the pulsating rhythms of Adams or Reich - but with more astringent harmonies. I find the breakdown of the minimalist machine at the end of Broken Symmetry more convincing than the warmly scored Adams-ish sunrise that closes Fourth Sonata. Granted, to end a piece with a tonal gesture of hope in the still-modernist 1970s was a bold stroke - the young Matthews's optimism (even if qualified) obviously didn't come cheap. But I prefer him as a Nineties pessimist: there's more iron in the soul, and even if the symmetries are ultimately shattered, the logic is more persuasive.

The recordings are splendid: tough and sinewy as it is, Suns Dance is a chamber piece and the close-ish microphone positioning helps; Broken Symmetry and Fourth Sonata, by contrast, are rightly viewed from a slightly more respectful distance. Whether reduced to 10 players or augmented to nearer 100, the Sinfonietta plays magnificently - precision and power combined.

STEPHEN JOHNSON

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