In concert – James Ehnes, CBSO / Finnegan Downie Dear: Cassandra Miller, Britten & Beethoven

©Frank-Bloedhorn-finnegan-downie-dear

Miller La Donna (2021) [UK premiere]
Britten
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.15 (1938-9)
Beethoven
Symphony no.6 in F major Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1807-08)

James Ehnes (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Finnegan Downie Dear (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 6 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; Picture of Frankie Downie Dear (c) Frank Bloedhorn

Tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra saw a first appearance with British conductor Finnegan Downie Dear, winner of the 2020 Mahler Competition in Bamberg, and a first hearing in the UK for an orchestral piece by the Canadian composer Cassandra Miller.

Currently based in London, where she is Professor of Composition at the Guildhall, Miller’s output has often drawn on pre-existing sources as are then integrated into the work at hand. Such is the case with La Donna, premiered at Barcelona earlier this year, where a group of Genoese male voices singing La Partenza da Parigi (as recorded by the redoubtable Alan Lomax in 1954) is channelled into music of intensive polyphonic activity and topped by a falsetto melodic line – the eponymous La donna. This builds to an apex as intricate in its texture as it is immediate in expression, then gradually subsides in a resonance of suffused elation. Such was the impression left by this performance, Downie Dear drawing sustained amplitude from relatively modest forces in a visceral demonstration of tension and release.

A time there was when Britten’s Violin Concerto enjoyed only a modest presence in British concert halls, though recent years have seen it taken up by leading soloists from around the world. Its edgy yet intense lyricism has a persuasive exponent in James Ehnes (above), who brought out the restless emotion of the initial Moderato – the five-note motto underlining the context of war and unrest from which it emerged. The Vivace’s rhythmic velocity and sardonic tone were no less evident, a tensile reading of the cadenza pointing up its thematic function and leading inevitably into the final Passacaglia. After a superbly shaped orchestral introduction, Ehnes characterized its variations with mounting intensity to a powerfully wrought climax – the final pages exuding a fatalistic eloquence no less affecting now than eight decades ago.

Perhaps this music’s rapt equivocation explains why it has often been programmed in recent seasons with Beethoven’s Pastoral. While by no means revelatory, the present account gave a good indication of Downie Dear’s abilities – not least his emphasis on rhythmic articulation during what was a relatively swift traversal of the opening Allegro, along with his fastidious attention to dynamics as brought the requisite focus and lucidity to the Scene by the Brook with its warmly enveloping string textures and its bird-calls deftly inflected towards the close.

The final three movements unfolded in much the same vein – the peasants lithe if arguably a little too well-behaved in their merrymaking and the thunderstorm forceful if not electrifying in response, though with a seamless diminuendo of volume and energy going into the finale. Without drawing the ultimate gravitas from its interplay of rondo and variation procedures, Downie Dear guided it surely and attentively to a ruminative coda – Beethoven transcending the incipient era of musical romanticism through the (deliberate) absence of any defining ego.

This evening’s programme is repeated tomorrow afternoon – with the Miller being replaced by Mozart’s Idomeneo overture – while the CBSO returns next week for Rossini, Berlioz, and Prokofiev under François Leleux, along with Baiba Skride in Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Cassandra Miller, click here – and for more information on Finnegan Downie Dear, head to the conductor’s website

Talking Heads: Joseph Phibbs

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Interview with Ben Hogwood

This year in the Summer at Snape series, Britten Pears Arts has been presenting premieres of new arrangements of works by Benjamin Britten. The last in the series will be composer Joseph Phibbs’ arrangement of Britten’s landmark orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers for the chamber forces of the Hebrides Ensemble and soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn. Described by Britten as ‘my real Op.1’, the piece represents the full flowering of his creative relationship with W.H. Auden, who supplied the texts for the three middle poems, writing his own new verse for the Prologue and Epilogue. It is also the first of Britten’s works to explore the theme of humans’ inhumanity, which ran as a thread throughout his life and music. Arcana was able to talk with Joseph about his arrangement, and about the meaningful relationship he has with the music of its composer.

BH: I understand you have a long-standing relationship with Britten’s music. Can you remember the first time you heard anything by him?

JP: I was around 13, and borrowed some cassettes of the String Quartets from my local library. The opening of No.1 immediately captivated me, the violins and viola sustaining a soft cluster of notes at the very top of their registers, with gentle cello pizzicato gestures beneath. The sound world had a disorientating effect, one that was totally alien as well as extraordinarily beautiful. My impressions were of wide landscapes bathed in a glowing, evening light, and it may indeed have been influenced by the impressions Britten had of America around the time he composed it.

A few months later, I heard the Dirge from the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, which was riveting, and shortly after became obsessed with Peter Grimes, listening to it non-stop, before making a pilgrimage to The Red House when I was about 16.

I was incensed by a documentary that had just been made called J’accuse, which dismissed most of what Britten composed after 1945, and spoke at length to the curator about it, who kindly allowed me look around the Britten-Pears Library (perhaps to calm me down!). I remember picking up a stone from the drive way, in the hope that Britten’s shoe may have graced it 20 years earlier..

It all sounds crazy to me now (it probably was crazy), but my reverence for Britten has never really left me. He strikes me as an extraordinary and mysterious figure, a workaholic who was in some ways compelled to compose because his own irrepressible genius.

When I first heard Our Hunting Fathers it made an incredibly strong impression on me, and I found it emotionally very powerful. How did you respond on first hearing?

Of Britten’s mature works, it was one I knew less well. Having now rediscovered it, I can see how remarkable it is. Britten’s technique was fully formed when he composed it in 1936, at the age of 22, and although it’s his first mature work to include orchestra the scoring is both impeccably judged and extremely imaginative in ways that would have been unusual at the time. He himself regarded it as his first ‘real opus 1’, so clearly felt he had achieved something important. It’s also his first large-scale expression of pacifism. Fascism was on the rise throughout Europe at the time – the Spanish Civil War erupted while the piece was being composed – and Auden’s juxtaposition of ‘German’ and Jew’ (dogs in a hunting pack) at the close of The Dance of Death has a chilling prescience in light of how the world would look ten years later. In some respects it’s an atypical work for Britten, a reason why even some of his detractors have a soft spot for it.

How would you describe Britten’s ability at scoring for orchestra?

As mentioned above, there’s a certain glow to his sound, as well as a clarity and lightness of touch, which I’ve always loved. His music is the opposite of ‘dense’, and he disliked orchestral music that sounded heavy (famously so in the case of Brahms – though also in some Beethoven). He discovered new ways of approaching the orchestra throughout his life; the textures of Peter Grimes, for example, are completely different from those of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Death in Venice. The melodic and harmonic aspects of his music are always perfectly aligned to his orchestration, and can’t really be divorced from it. For this reason, in this arrangement the original orchestral colour has been kept as possible, and elsewhere I’ve tried to imagine what Britten would have done were he scoring for a small ensemble.

What other Britten works do you particularly admire?

I drift in and out of pieces, and am at the moment re-familiarising myself with Rejoice in the Lamb, another early work. Death in Venice is my favourite opera, and Les Illuminations has always been high on my list. A Boy was Born, which predates Our Hunting Fathers, is to my mind one of the most extraordinary works in the repertoire, and the pinnacle of his choral writing from a technical angle. I discovered the cello suites through the superb Tim Hugh recordings around 15 years ago, and they became a big influence on my work. They are perhaps his most private, intimate pieces.

In recent years I’ve enjoyed getting to know his more obscure works better: Prelude and Fugue, for example, and The Journey of the Magi, both wonderful pieces. Occasionally pieces I haven’t listened to for several years suddenly come alive again through an unfamiliar recording, as with Noseda‘s live LSO recording of War Reqiuem, or Iona Brown‘s riveting take on Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

How did the commission come about?

I was asked last year by Roger Wright at Britten Pears Arts – on Colin Matthew’s recommendation – to make this new arrangement, in part due to COVID restrictions. I discussed the instrumentation with William Conway, Artistic Director of the Hebrides Ensemble, and we decided on a scoring that would be compatible with the Sinfonietta Op.1, in the hope that these two pieces might be programmed together in the future. Boosey and Hawkes, who publish the work, granted permission, and it was then then a matter of gaining an overview of the whole piece, isolating particular sections that might be more challenging than others, and then working from beginning to end.

In Britten’s scoring for Our Hunting Fathers I felt I could detect the influence of in the idea of chamber-like passages in a work set for symphony orchestra. Was this something you were conscious of?

The chamber ensembles that emerge in parts of Mahler were clearly an influence, and his imagination had also been fired by Schoenberg, Berg, and Stravinsky, if not harmonically then in a more transparent, colouristic approach to scoring. It’s an unusual piece for the time in which it was written, when a denser approach to orchestral writing in England would have been more typical. I don’t know a work of Britten’s that is more fastidiously scored; every bar is packed full of instructions, and one has the impression he was setting out the full extent of his orchestral technique for the world to see. It left the audience – including Frank Bridge – fairly baffled after the premiere, and was savaged in most of the press. Though it was performed the following year, under Adrian Boult, it had to wait until 1950 before resurfacing.

Did you refer to other smaller-scale Britten works when you were doing the arrangement? I was thinking of the economical scoring in works like Curlew River or the Nocturne.

The Sinfonietta was my closest reference point, although some of the chamber operas, in particular The Turn of the Screw, were also in my mind. Every one of the 12 instruments were essential to do justice to the piece; without, for example, the strident, brassy quality of the horn, the moments of high drama would have been lost.

It must be quite something having the premiere at Snape, and to have your own work back in the live environment.

To have something of Britten’s performed which I’ve tampered with, in the concert hall he built, feels a bit daunting. I can only hope he’d be pleased that one of his most original and neglected works might reach a wider public, albeit in a new guise.

Has Britten been an influence on your own music? I’m thinking particularly of the string quartets.

His instrumentation and orchestration has probably had the biggest single influence. The way he reinvents old forms, such as the passacaglia – which he used many times – is also intriguing. But more than that, it’s his willingness to be emotionally direct which I find so appealing. His music has a spontaneity which I adore; there’s no struggle in order to enjoy it, since his technique is so impeccable. The music seems to move in a direction that it could only go, and in this sense there’s a mastery of judgement – of effortlessness and inevitability, as in Bach or Mozart – which is extremely seductive. His ability to enthral and yet not confuse is, for me, one of the hallmarks of his genius.

How would you describe your new Cello Sonata?

This is a joint commission between Wigmore Hall and Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, which will host the premiere by Guy Johnston and Tom Poster at the end of September. I got to know Guy’s playing more intimately while composing the work, and have since become a huge fan. Tom, who I’ve worked with before, is also a superb musician, so I couldn’t hope to be better served. The work is written in memory of someone I’d worked with closely, who passed away in his early 50s, and this lends the piece an elegiac quality at times. It’s in several movements, some linked, and includes an arrangement of a 16th Century pavane, in a movement entitled Ghost Dance, as a link to Hatfield House, where Elizabeth I lived as a child.

Is it important for you to have a friendship / understanding with your performers in the way that Britten had with his?

In a few cases, such as my Clarinet Concerto or Letters from Warsaw, I’ve written for close friends whose playing I know well. In other cases, it’s important for me to have a clear grasp of the technical capabilities of the performers, assuming it’s a commissioned work. Aside from that, it’s a question of trying to ‘ find the right notes’, as Britten put it, and to that extent the process is a personal and sometimes chaotic one, involving a large number of ideas and sketches. I get nervous sharing drafts before the piece is finished, as a player’s response – whether positive, negative, or silent – can divert you from what you intended to do.

What else are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing some guitar miniatures for a superb young player, Alex Hart, as well as a set of pieces for Tom Kimura – a wonderful pianist who I studied with at The Purcell School. After that, I’m starting a string piece for the Britten Sinfonia, and also gathering ideas together for a Violin Concerto.

Joseph Phibbsarrangement of Britten’s orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers for the chamber forces of the Hebrides Ensemble and soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn receives its world premiere at Snape Maltings on Tuesday 24 August. More information can be found here.

Talking Heads: Nicholas Daniel

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Interview by Ben Hogwood

As part of the inspiring Summer At Snape season, the counter-tenor Andrew Watts and oboist Nicholas Daniel, are giving world premiere performances of Sir John Tavener’s La Noche Oscura, with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Sian Edwards. Arcana took the chance to talk with Daniel, who received an OBE for his dedication to music in October 2020, about his lasting friendship with Sir John, as well as his hopes for live music in such a difficult time.

To begin, we look back to Daniel’s first musical meeting with the composer. “I remember hearing The Whale and thinking it was fabulous and risqué,” he says. “It became a piece people talked about more than heard when I was at the Royal Academy. I first met him through Richard Hickox, who I persuaded to ask John to write for me as a thank you for playing at his and Pamela’s wedding.”

While writing La Noche Oscura, Tavener did not consult with his dedicatees. “He never consulted with me about writing”, says Daniel. “I don’t know whether he did with other artists, but for me his pieces seemed to have arrived as a newborn but sitting up and asking for food. Even with Kaleidoscopes we only vaguely discussed the idea of wearing Indian clothes to play it and lighting it really well, months before he wrote it.”

The piece itself is an intriguing balancing act “Noche has inside it a major contradiction in terms. The words are absolutely agonising: “Where have you hidden, beloved, and left me moaning?” “Tell him I suffer, grieve and die” “but thou hast utterly rejected us: thou art very wroth against us,” but the music is not. He says “shining, intense, with majesty and grandeur”, and from my preparation I see the music as flowing through the words to a place where the music is in control. It’s as though the grinding agony of the words are not ignored, but swept away by the beauty of the harmony. It seems a little like Niobe, Britten’s D flat Major tribute to the Queen whose 14 children died (from the 6 Metamorphoses after Ovid for solo oboe), or maybe Gluck’s Che faro senza Euridice, which has nobility in the face of death. Interestingly both those pieces take their lead from Greek Myth.”

Written for oboe and countertenor, La Noche Oscura blends a relatively unusual combination of soloists, though Daniel refutes my initial suggestion the combination would be hard to balance. “In what way would it be difficult? Because Andrew Watts has the biggest counter tenor voice on the planet and therefore the oboe would be drowned? Possibly. Or that the oboe in the high register might drown the counter tenor in the middle? Well, John knew my playing very well and my high register is something I’ve worked very much to develop over years, partly through composers writing death defyingly quiet music for me up there. Listen to the cadenza of John Woolrich’s Oboe Concerto for instance. Noche is a whole major third lower in my part than the highest parts of Kaleidoscopes and I know how to balance to the gentler parts of a counter tenor voice anyway.”

tavener

He speaks with great warmth of Tavener (above), both as a friend and as a composer. “I adored him. He was completely unique, and although he maybe lived in other realms as well as ours he was completely able to exist in a very charming and entertaining way in the here and now. I think that he probably felt quite relaxed with me because he was very free in what he said, possibly sensing in me the very non-judgemental and open nature of my soul. His health must have been such a burden to him, and I was always slightly aware of his frailty – the main time I knew him was towards the end of his life. I will never forget the sound he made on the piano and ‘singing’ the music he’d written for me. It was like a seance.”

Is his music particularly appropriate for the times we are living through? “I believe that John’s music is appropriate for any time and any space. He can turn a bike shed into a cathedral with his music. I would love to think that as we have entered the very promising Age of Aquarius we might find it has uses for meditation, for finding stillness, and for connecting ourselves with the planet and with each other.”

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Talk turns to the pandemic, and a particularly special concert Daniel and long-time recital partner Julius Drake gave at the Wigmore Hall in 2020 (above), part of a special season of lunchtime concerts marking the hall’s reopening in June. It was a meaningful concert for those watching online – and for the two performers. “Oh my goodness, thank you. Well, it was a fantastic moment to be able to play to the world, yes. We chose the programme to entertain, and to touch people’s hearts. It was very moving how the artists in that first week all supported each other by text messages!  It was so special to play two new pieces there, by Michael Berkeley and Huw Watkins, and also to play Madaleine Dring’s music, which I adore. As it happened it was two days after the murder of George Floyd, and I decided to dedicate the Bach encore to his memory. It proved harder than I thought to speak about it. The reality is the piece I played (basically in one breath using circular breathing) was shorter than the time he was prevented from breathing. The connection was obvious and absolutely shattering.”

The current situation with Government restrictions from the Coronavirus pandemic means plans for future concerts are sadly up in the air. The reality is stark, and Daniel’s diary has a small number of entries. “A few. Incredibly few. 2023 is looking a little better than the rest of 2021 and 2022 put together. This is all going to take some time. It’s also going to take some fearless programming and risk taking to make concerts irresistibly inviting. New music, new presentation, fresh diverse repertoire; young, diverse artists, a fresh dawn for true diversity and the certain knowledge that we will never take an audience for granted ever again.”

There is a little consolation on the recording front, where Daniel has been busy. “Haha! I’ve been very lucky to have some recordings released over the last while, music by Eleanor Alberga, Roxanna Panufnik and Mark Simpson with Mozart, the latter recorded in lockdown. I had the huge joy of recording a disc for my new label Chandos with the exquisite Doric Quartet of British music which will be out later in the year. On that disc I recorded the Delius Two Interludes on Leon Goossens’ 1911 Lorée Oboe. It was a huge privilege to be allowed to play this massively historic and important instrument.”

Will his approach to making music be any different after the pandemic? “Yes”, he says emphatically. “I’m saying to my students that it has to BURN. No prisoners can be taken, risk taking is everything and make it HIT the audience like your life depends on it. Now is the time to make music COMPLETELY relevant to people’s lives, especially to our children, each one of whom deserves to play an instrument and learn the language of music. Scotland is giving this to their children but England and the rest of the U.K.? Not yet.”

The effects of restrictions imposed in the pandemic are clear to see, and Daniel addresses this head on. “I would love audiences to spare a moment of thought for the artists right now, let alone the effect on our incomes. Not being on stage for more than a year plays havoc with your mind, and just getting to the concert hall seems to involve rules and regulations and risks we have never known before. Personally I’m very grateful that people are taking some of the same risks coming to hear concerts, but it feels weirdly exposing to walk on stage to the smell of hand sanitiser having just ripped off your mask, metres apart from your colleagues. We do it despite these things because we want to and because we have to, and because most of us are addicted to music and concerts.”

Andrew Watts and Nicholas Daniel will give two performances of Sir John Tavener’s La Noche Oscura with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Sian Edwards at Snape Maltings on Friday 25 June. Their program, part of the ongoing Summer at Snape festival, includes music by Handel, Tansy Davies and two works by Britten, including the Temporal Variations orchestrated by Colin Matthews – who spoke with Arcana earlier in the season here. For details and tickets click here

Summer at Snape runs from Friday 4 June until Saturday 11 July. For full details on all the live events, visit the Snape Maltings website.
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In concert – Ian Bostridge, CBSO / Michael Seal: Britten Nocturne & Malcolm Arnold Symphony no.5

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Ian Bostridge (tenor), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Britten Nocturne Op.60 (1958)
Arnold Symphony no.5 Op.74 (1961)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 9 June 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been centred on ‘England’s dreaming’, but there is surely a future for such astute juxtapositions of works by British composers as that heard in this latest concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; two pieces separated by just three years but poles apart stylistically.

The fourth and last of Britten’s orchestral song-cycles, Nocturne is a sequence with emphasis very much on the cyclical aspect. Its eight settings each features an obbligato instrument heard alongside string orchestra, the tenor adopting a flexible arioso manner with which to deliver a range of texts across centuries of English poetry. After a somnolent initial setting of Shelley – strings introducing a spectral rhythmic figure acting as a ritornello across the work – the bassoon emerges for an ominous setting of Tennyson, then the harp for a jejune rendering of Coleridge.

Notably restrained with his characterization thus far, Ian Bostridge upped the expressive ante when horn came to the fore in an evocative treatment of Middleton; the more so as timpani entered for Wordsworth’s troubled verses on the aftermath of revolution. Accrued tension spilled over to a plangent setting of Owen with cor anglais in attendance, then flute and clarinet joined the voice in a rapt take on Keats. All seven instruments duly reappeared for the final setting of Shakespeare – complementing tenor and strings when they arrived at a barely tangible repose.

Throughout, Michael Seal was typically alert and sensitive in accompaniment – before letting the CBSO off its collective leash for Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony. If not the finest of his cycle (which accolade would likely go to the Seventh), the Fifth is the most representative in its disjunct contrasts and fraught emotions – not least in an opening Tempestuoso whose pivoting between stark irony and consoling empathy results in several assaultive climaxes as were fearlessly delivered. In his pointedly succinct note for the premiere, Arnold confessed himself ‘‘unable to distinguish between sentiment and sentimentality’’ – a disingenuity that made possible the Andante with its aching main melody and soulful secondary theme which between them engender a baleful culmination before the earlier raptness is fitfully regained.

In his unequalled 1973 recording with this orchestra, Arnold secured playing of transcendent poise from the strings in this movement, but Seal was not far behind in the sustained intensity he drew from the present-day CBSO. Nor was there any lack of sarcasm in the scherzo which follows – wind and brass exchanging gestures either side of the clarinets’ freewheeling tune in the trio, then an abrasively confrontational coda. It remains for the Risoluto finale to attempt a summation with elements from the earlier movements thrown together in an atmosphere of martial volatility; climaxing in a restatement of the slow movement’s main theme resplendent but, ultimately, futile – the music collapsing into a void in which bells echo forlornly against fading lower strings. The CBSO imbued these closing minutes with truly graphic immediacy.

This instructive and cathartic programme brought a (rightly) enthusiastic response from those present. Next week features another British symphony, the first by Thomas Adès, alongside music by Purcell and Mozart for what should be a no less provocative and absorbing concert.

For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website

For further information about the next concert of Purcell, Mozart and Adès on Wednesday 16 June, click here, and for more on Sir Malcolm Arnold you can visit the website dedicated to the composer.

Talking Heads: Colin Matthews

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Interview by Ben Hogwood

The Aldeburgh Festival may not be with us in name this year, but its spirit burns brightly in the form of Summer at Snape, a series of safely distanced concerts to be given over every weekend in June.

As with the festival, these concerts feature imaginative programming, with contemporary music to the fore. Composer Colin Matthews has an illustrious history at Snape and Aldeburgh stretching back to his time as assistant to Benjamin Britten late in the composer’s life. He will be close at hand, with two new works receiving their premiere live performances. Firstly, the Nash Ensemble will feature in the first performance with an audience of Seascapes, setting poetry by Sidney Keyes. Conducted by Martyn Brabbins, the verses will be sung by soprano and dedicatee Claire Booth.

The next day will give audiences a chance to enjoy a new arrangement for string orchestra of the Double Concerto by Britten himself, a work completed at the age of 18 when the composer was still a student. Matthews arranged the original for full orchestra but has now reduced his forces, and the Royal Academy of Music Strings under John Wilson will reveal the new version with soloists Thomas Zehetmair (violin) and Ruth Killius (viola).

Matthews is a generous interviewee, taking time to consider questions from Arcana around both works and the return of live music – not to mention the problem of finding inspiration as a composer during the pandemic. First, however, we started by asking him about the poetry of Sidney Keyes, whose verse forms the bedrock of Seascapes.

“As far as I remember I first came across Sidney Keyes through Tippett’s The Heart’s Assurance”, Matthews recalls, “and I wrote a song cycle to Keyes’ words as long ago as 1968, long since withdrawn. Re-reading Keyes’ complete poems a few years back made me want to make a (hopefully better!) attempt to set him, and one of the poems (Night Estuary) was one I set more than 50 years ago – although I can’t recall it at all. The complexity of his thought doesn’t make for easy setting, but the words have a lyricism and power which calls for music.”

The work was first performed at London’s Wigmore Hall on 30 April, part of a Nash Ensemble program including works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Julian Anderson and Simon Holt (which you can watch above).

What was it like seeing the work finally performed live? “Rather remarkable – only my third experience of live music in about 14 months, and an unusual experience to hear a work for the first time more than a year after it was completed.”

Claire Booth is the ideal singer for this work, and Matthews wrote the vocal line especially with her in mind. “Absolutely. I’ve known Claire since she took part in the Aldeburgh Composition Course in (I think) 2000, and this is the third piece that I’ve written for her. I chose a small ensemble whose colours are relatively subdued: a lot of the music is introspective in mood and is designed very much for the soloist to float over it.”

Moving on to the Britten, we consider the Double Concerto for violin, viola and orchestra, written at the age of 18 – and which Matthews has now reduced to the accompaniment of strings only. Does he detect is a lineage back to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, a work for the same instrumental combination? “Obviously he (Britten) knew the Sinfonia Concertante, and he mentions a performance (with Lionel Tertis) in his 1931 diary, a few months before he started on the Concerto. It was one of the last pieces I heard him conduct. But there’s no influence from Mozart other than the soloists: instead, it follows very much the three-movement form of his Sinfonietta Op.1 which he had just completed, but on a larger scale.”

How much work was required between the 1997 version, made from the fully catalogued work (above), and the version we will hear at Snape? “A great deal! Making the 1997 version was comparatively simple, as Britten had made very detailed indications of instrumentation in his short score. Reducing it to strings alone – which was Thomas Zehetmair’s idea – meant a lot of rethinking and reworking. For instance, there is an important timpani part in the finale which took a lot of work to transfer satisfactorily to the double basses.”

We move on to talk about Britten’s writing for strings, and Matthews pinpoints several passages in his writing that have left a lasting admiration. “This work of course predates the most important of his string pieces, the 1936 Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, whose string writing is a model of flair and virtuosity. The string writing for the original version of the Concerto is rarely as adventurous, so I was to some extent constrained by what was already there, as well of course as having to adapt music that was written for wind and brass. In many respects it had been easier to emulate Britten’s string writing in my orchestration of the Temporal Variations, originally for oboe and piano, and so starting from scratch.

We move on to discuss the last year, and how it has been for Matthews as a composer. Has he had plenty of material for new works or has it been hard to find inspiration at times? “At first there was a sense of freedom in not writing to commission or deadline”, he says, “and I wrote a fairly large-scale orchestral piece in the summer of last year. Subsequently I’ve been finding it a bit difficult to focus on projects other than small or solo pieces, and this is one of several arrangements I’ve made for the smaller forces that are necessary in these difficult times, which has been a good way to keep up momentum.”

The last question requires the simplest of answers to confirm just how valuable Summer at Snape promises to be. What does it mean to Colin to be part of live music making at Snape once again? “Very special.”

Summer at Snape runs from Friday 4 June until Saturday 11 July. For full details on all the live events, visit the Snape Maltings website. For more on Colin Matthews, you can visit the composer’s website here
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