On record: Colin Matthews: Violin Concerto, Cortège, Cello Concerto No. 2 (NMC)


Colin Matthews: Cortège (1988)*. Cello Concerto No. 2 (1996)**. Violin Concerto (2009)***

***Leila Josefowicz (violin); **Anssi Kartunen (cello); *Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly; BBC Symphony Orchestra / **Rumon Gamba and ***Oliver Knussen


A welcome (and timely!) release of three major pieces by Colin Matthews, who celebrated his 70th birthday last year and whose involvement – as producer and promoter – in British contemporary music has sometimes obscured his considerable contribution as a composer.

What’s the music like?

The three works offer a viable overview of Matthews’s orchestral output over two decades. Earliest is Cortège – written for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and its then Music Director Bernard Haitink, and a notable instance of the Mahlerian strain in this composer’s thinking. Unfolding over an inexorable tread, this diversifies incrementally for a convulsive central section as duly brings an intensified resumption of the initial music and an explosive culmination before subsiding into nothingness. Under Riccardo Chailly, the Concertgebouw gives an impressive account of a ‘processional’ such as has featured prominently in modern British music (Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time and John Pickard’s Channel Firing come immediately to mind), and which here sustains its monumentality with impressive purpose.

Although by no means an understated piece, the Second Cello Concerto is appreciably more varied in mood and diverse in its formal construction. Its five movements play continuously – the angular central ‘Scherzo’ framed by two ‘Song without text’ movements of an arioso-like expressiveness; these, in turn, are flanked by a ‘Declamation’ whose recitative-like austerity is transmuted in the final ‘Resolution’ towards an incisive resolve. Written for and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich (whom memory recalls played it rather poorly), the piece finds an admirable exponent in Anssi Karttunen, who audibly appreciates the underlying subtlety of a conception more ‘concertante’ than ‘concerto’ in its emphasis. Hopefully this belated release will encourage further hearings of one of the finest such works from the past quarter-century.

The most recent piece here, the Violin Concerto (2009) was commissioned by Birmingham’s Feeney Trust, whose portfolio amounts to a fair conspectus of post-war British music – one to which this concerto is a notable addition. Its harmonic basis may stem from Mahler and Berg but its rhythmic incisiveness, notably the tensile solo writing, recalls Prokofiev and Walton. The first of two movements elides twice between slower and faster material with understated intent, so allowing its successor to open-out expressively via an acceleration from measured intensity to headlong propulsion at the close. The work is finely realised by Leila Josefowicz, her rendering of a solo part virtuosic for all its lack of display highlighted against an orchestra which features a diverse percussion section and duly yields an enticing interplay of sonorities.

Does it all work?

Yes. Matthews has long been a composer fighting shy of stylistic straitjackets, with the result that his diverse output sometimes lacks focus or consistency. Not so the three pieces featured here, demonstrating a keen handling of form and an equally well-integrated expressive range.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound leaves little to be desired, while the booklet notes are informative and not unreasonably enthusiastic. A pity, even so, that it has taken so long for at least two of these recordings to be made available: musicians and listeners alike need to be aware of this music.

Richard Whitehouse

Further information at the NMC website

On record: Music For My Love (Toccata)


Brahms (arr. Söderlind) Von ewiger Liebe
Casulana (arr. C. Matthews) Il vostro dipartir
Dean Angels’ Wings (Music for Yodit)
Elcock Song for Yodit, Op. 23
Ford Sleep
Holloway Music for Yodit
Kerem A Farewell for Yodit
Lord (arr. Mann) Zarabanda Solitaria
Pickard …forbidding mourning…
Ruders Lullaby for Yodit
Söderlind 15 Variations on a Norwegian Folktune

Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann


The Music For My Love project has its basis in the life, cut short by cancer, of Yodit Tekle – the Eritrean-born partner of Martin Anderson, whose desire to commemorate her in music led to his contacting those composers he knew personally, resulting in over 100 pieces for string orchestra which he intends to record for his Toccata Classics label. This first volume takes in eight pieces and three arrangements, ranging from around two minutes to a full quarter-hour.

What’s the music like?

Appreciably more varied in expression than might be expected given the context.

Among the original pieces, Robin Holloway has written a pensive elegy whose dance-like central section offers but minimal contrast, whereas Poul Ruders contributes a wistful and affecting lullaby. Mikhel Kerem’s miniature amply sustains its rapt atmosphere, while Andrew Ford takes an earlier vocal setting for his gentle round-lay. Steve Elcock conveys a consolatory mood via the subtlest of means, then Brett Dean draws on an earlier piano piece in music of ethereally diffused harmony. John Pickard draws more obliquely upon an earlier cello piece for what is the most animated of these works in its textural contrasts, while Ragnar Söderlind takes the Norwegian folksong Oh, the cooling wind as the basis for 15 variations whose cumulative impact feels a little diffused in context – for all that its emotional consistency is undeniable.

Among the arrangements, the late Jon Lord’s evocative sarabande for string quartet responds effortlessly to Paul Mann’s skilful adaptation. Framing the sequence overall, Söderlind makes of Brahms’s song a threnody of Grieg-like plaintiveness, whereas Colin Matthews draws out the assertive eloquence inherent in a madrigal by the still little-known Maddalena Casulana.

Does it all work?

Indeed, given that it would have been all too easy to assemble a programme unrelieved in its emotional range. Thanks to judicious sequencing of the pieces at hand, this disc amply fulfils its commemorative function while also making for an hour’s absorbing listen in its own right.

Is it recommended?

Absolutely, not least as the Debrecen-based Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra responds with commitment to Paul Mann’s direction. The sound endows the string textures with plenty of space and definition, while booklet annotations are as comprehensive as ever from Toccata.

Richard Whitehouse

Further instalments in this worthwhile project are much anticipated: in the meantime, read more about its continuation via the Toccata Classics website

Proms premieres – Birds with new plumage

The Tui Bird from New Zealand. Photo (c) Sid Mosdell

Messiaen, orch Christopher Dingle – Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (1987-1991, orch 2015)

Ravel, arr. Colin Matthews – Oiseaux tristes from Miroirs (1905, orch 2015)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (Prom 29)

Duration: 4 minutes each

BBC iPlayer link


The Messiaen can be heard from 1:55; the Ravel from 35:02

What’s the story behind the pieces?

Messiaen’s Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (A bird from the tree of life) is music that is ‘incredibly technically difficult to conduct’, in the words of Nicholas Collon, given the job of overseeing its first performance in this guise, arranged by scholar Christopher Dingle.

The relatively short piece originally intended to be part of his massive, multi-movement orchestral piece Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà…, but was removed before the first performance. It is mostly scored for percussion but changes tempo and time signature more or less every bar. In the piece Messiaen profiles the New Zealand tui bird through a written-out melody of its song.

Meanwhile Ravel’s Oiseaux tristes (Sorrowful birds) is the latest French piano piece to be orchestrated by Colin Matthews. The composer has tried his hand at a number of Debussy Préludes, imagining how Ravel might have undertaken the task, but here he looks at one of the six parts of Miroirs, the suite written by the composer for piano. Ravel himself orchestrated two of the other movements, Une barque sur l’océan (A boat on the ocean) and Alborada del gracioso (Morning song of the jester).

The piece is intended to portray the sorrowful birds in the depths of a very hot summer forest. They are lost.

Did you know?

Ravel’s orchestration of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of many versions of the Russian composer’s suite for piano – but is the most performed.

Initial verdict

The Messiaen is bright and strongly rhythmic, but not in a conventional sense. It is very treble based, and is punctuated by crisp chords that have an unusual colour, with the wood block and tuned percussion heavily in evidence.

Colin Matthews’ orchestration is evocatively coloured, ideal for a humid evening at the Royal Albert Hall. The mood is oppressive, the brass lending weight to the lower end of the sound. It is clear from this that Matthews has listened closely to Ravel’s own methods of orchestration, because his way with the colours available is surely near to what the composer might have imagined.

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

Colin Matthews’ orchestrations of Debussy Préludes can be heard in a release made by the Hallé record label, found on Spotify here

Proms premiere – Colin Matthews: String Quartet no.5


String Quartet no.5 by Colin Matthews

Apollon Musagète Quartet (Paweł Zalejski & Bartosz Zachłod (violins), Piotr Szumieł (viola) & Piotr Skweres (cello)) (Proms Chamber Music 3)

Duration: 12 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ecq5v2#b06402nt (Matthews begins talking at 13:19, then the piece at 15:34 and ends at 27:36)

What’s the story behind the piece?

In conversation with Petroc Trelawny before the performance, Matthews reveals that his string quartet rate of composition has been approximately one every ten years, but that the gap is now narrowing.

This work was written for the 75th anniversary of the Tanglewood Festival and is conceived in a single movement. “I wanted to do something very different from the others”, he says, and the silences are a starting point. “The work begins very hesitantly”, he explains, and works up to only one big climax.

Did you know?

Colin Matthews worked as Britten’s assistant in the last few years of his life, and was essentially his right hand man for proof reading and even composition. You can read an interview about his exploits here

Initial verdict

It is possible to detect the hand of a mature composer at work here. So many new pieces rely on shock tactics and volume to make themselves heard, but Colin Matthews shuns all of that with an economic approach that actually brings forward greater emotion.

The faltering start from the quartet, together, becomes a distinctive motif that runs through the piece, and although the music does indeed build and get to a more secure footing, it never fully shakes off the uneasy start from the muted quartet. It is at times reminiscent of a Bartók quartet slow movement, or even Britten, in the intensity of its expression, though it never fully sounds like those composers. The Fifth Quartet says a lot in a relatively short duration, convincing in spite of its emotional doubt, as it retreats into the shadows at the end.

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

Colin has a BBC page devoted to him here