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The Heart’s Assurance”, Matthews recalls, “and I wrote a song cycle to Keyes’ words as long ago as 1968, long since withdrawn.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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The Nash Ensemble play Julian Anderson at the Wigmore Hall

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Contemporary Music Series: Julian Anderson, Composer in Residence – Wigmore Hall, Saturday 7 November

Stravinsky: Three Pieces
Ravel: Chansons madécasses
Anderson: The Colour of Pomegranates; Seadrift; Ring Dance [UK premiere]
Woolrich: Pluck from the Air [London premiere]
Anderson: Van Gough Blue [World premiere]

Claire Booth (soprano), Nash Ensemble [Philippa Davies (flute/piccolo), Richard Hosford, Marie Lloyd (clarinets), Laura Samuel, David Adams (violins), Laurence Power (viola); Adrian Brendel (cello), Peter Buckoke (double bass), Sally Pryce (harp)]
Alexandre Bloch, conductor

Review by Richard Whitehouse

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The Nash Ensemble. © Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

Julian Anderson’s residency at Wigmore Hall has brought a variety of artists and ensembles in performances of music – notably from the early twentieth century – so often difficult to schedule in recitals. One such opened tonight’s programme: Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for string quartet (1914) – a work no less radical than the ballets preceding it, given with the rhythmic trenchancy, gestural precision and harmonic plangency as characterize each piece.

Quite a contrast with Ravel’s Chansons madécasses (1926), a song-cycle whose singular scoring – soprano with flute, cello and piano – makes it awkward to find the right context. Not that this inhibited Claire Booth, whose unforced eloquence in the sensual ‘Nahandove’ and languorous ‘Il est doux de se coucher’ was balanced by the accusatory wrath of ‘Aoua’.

Anderson was represented in this first half by two pieces from two decades ago. The Colour of Pomegranates (1994) is less the encapsulation of Sergey Paradjanov’s film so much as a recollection of its magical aura, Philippa Davies unfolding the alto flute part with admirable dexterity as partnered by Ian Brown. Seadrift (1993) is a continuous sequence of songs such as renders Walt Whitman’s fabled text from a decidedly fresh perspective – soprano joined by flute (doubling piccolo) clarinet and piano in music that, without downplaying the purely emotional or even sentimental qualities of this poetry, enfolds it within a sonic canvas that underlines the aspects of union and separation at its core. Another fine showing from Booth, with members of the Nash taking its harmonic and rhythmic intricacies decisively in hand.

After the interval, Laura Samuel and David Adams gave the first UK hearing – and the first anywhere in 27 years – of Ring Dance (1987), Anderson’s piece which combines his then fascination for microtonal tuning with harmonic and timbral facets of Norway’s Hardanger fiddle tradition. The result pivots between relative consonance and dissonance in a way that intrigues rather than provokes (though first-night listeners in Stockholm evidently thought otherwise!) and, as with Anderson’s recently revived First String Quartet, a reminder of how early preoccupations have continued along more oblique lines. John Woolrich’s Pluck from the Air (2013) sprang few surprises in comparison, this tensile quintet for piano and strings outlining a longer-term engagement which might have been pursued in a second movement.

All the members of the Nash Ensemble then took the stage for the first hearing of Van Gough Blue (2015), Anderson’s homage to the artist whose preoccupations with colour and shade are embodied over its 20 minutes. Thus ‘l’Aube, soleil naissant’ evokes a tangible awakening, its inwardness duly offset by the pungent rhythmic and melodic interplay of ‘Les Vignobles’ and the ‘coming into focus’ of ‘Les Alpilles’ with its lively apex. The suspenseful harmonic stasis of ‘Eygalières’ then makes way for the culmination of ‘la nuit, peindre les étoiles’: a musical translation of the morning (4:40am on 25th May 1889) when Van Gough sketched his Starry Night painting, heard in terms of a ‘cosmic dance’ as carries all before it to the disintegrative final lament. Alexandre Bloch presided over this assured reading of a significant new work.