Talking Heads: Colin Matthews

colin-matthews

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The Heart’s Assurance”, Matthews recalls, “and I wrote a song cycle to Keyes’ words as long ago as 1968, long since withdrawn.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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City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: Second Weekend

Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Saturday 24 & Sunday 25 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This second weekend of the Debussy Festival featured a similar mix of orchestral, song and instrumental events, held at various venues in Birmingham in addition to Symphony Hall and extending over the broad spectrum of Debussy’s music to include several less familiar items.

Saturday evening focussed on ‘Sacred Debussy’, and opened with his prelude La Cathédrale engloutie (1910) in an orchestration by Colin Matthews faithful to its spirit. The CBSO then vacated the platform for Messiaen’s motet O sacrum convivium (1937), fervently sung by the CBSO Chorus under Simon Halsey and preceded by Bach’s Dorian Toccata and Fugue. Its methodical progress was ideally complemented by Dieu parmi nous, concluding Messiaen’s large-scale cycle La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) with a panache to which Thomas Trotter was no less responsive. Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane (1904) ended the first half with an allure and poise that Suzy Wilkinson-Kawalec conveyed in full measure; CBSO assistant conductor Jonathan Bloxham securing an elegant and fastidious response from the strings.

After the interval, a rare chance to hear virtually the whole of Debussy’s incidental music for Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play La Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911). Not, then, the 20-minute ‘symphonic fragments’ arranged by André Caplet (who also undertook much of the original orchestration) or the hour-long complete score with narration, but a 35-minute hybrid where the music for the five acts was amalgamated into a four-movement ‘choral symphony’. With its hieratic modality and austere if never merely archaic polyphony, this is arguably the most emotionally affecting of Debussy’s later works and was superbly sung by the CBSO Chorus. Sopranos Ilse Eerens and Katja Stuber were effortless in their solo parts and Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla (below) drawing an eloquent response from the CBSO. Undoubtedly a highlight of this festival.

On to Sunday and an early afternoon concert of ‘Exotic Debussy’, opening with another three Preludes (1913) – the ironic wit of Minstrels, Mussorgskian heft of La puerta del vino and the bracing humour of General Lavine – Eccentric – once again heard in orchestrations by Colin Matthews responsive more to the images being evoked than the music as conceived for piano. Bloxham led the CBSO in a spirited account of the ‘Pas de six’ from Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas (1956), then Graźinytė-Tyla presided over two sections from Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (1910) – the piquant Orientalism of Laideronette and the encroaching rapture of Le jardin féerique, both enticingly rendered yet an unsatisfying close to a rather piecemeal first half. A shame the Ravel ballet was not heard in full, as this has long been a CBSO speciality.

There was nothing piecemeal about the second half, with Graźinytė-Tyla taking charge of the CBSO Youth Orchestra for a complete rendering of Debussy’s Images. His largest orchestral work when heard complete, this is difficult to bring off as a totality though this account came close. The ominous understatement of Gigues was well conveyed despite an occasional lack of subtlety, then the central triptych that is Ibéria gave this capable and enthusiastic outfit its head in the traversal from sultry street-life, through nocturnal rumination, to festal celebration – the overall sequence being projected with verve and immediacy. Yet the closing Rondes de printemps was even more successful, its oblique evocation of rural revelry given cumulative impetus such as made for a more than usually conclusive end to this wide-ranging sequence.

The mid-afternoon ‘Tombeau de Debussy’ juxtaposed pieces from the supplement published by La Revue musicale in 1920 with commissions under BCMG’s Sound Investment Scheme. Jungeun Park’s Tombeau de Claude Debussy found violinist Alexandra Wood, cellist Ulrich Heinen and pianist Richard Uttley (above) evoking the composer’s death in darkly ironic terms, then the oblique tonality of Dukas’s La plainte, au loin, du faune … seemed as much a memorial to the creative impasse as to its passing. Highly sensitive here, Uttley was no less probing in the moody ‘Sostenuto rubato’ that Bartók incorporated into his Eight Improvisations; soprano Ruby Hughes joining him for the whimsical profundity of Satie’s setting of Lamartine in En souvenir. Sinta Wallur’s Tagore Fireflies sets three brief verses by the Indian poet in music whose ornamented vocal was complemented by the piano’s gamelan-like patterning. Wood and Heinen found requisite plangency in the first movement of Ravel’s Duo; then cellist and soprano took on engaging theatricality for Frédéric Pattar’s setting of Maeterlinck in (… de qui parlez-vous?). Uttley captured the bluesy elegance of Goossens’s Pièce, before Julian Anderson’s Tombeau united the musicians in a setting of Mallarmé’s tribute to Edgar Allen Poe whose chiselled vocal writing and guitar-like sonorities made for a provocative ending.

The early-evening programme of ‘Natural Debussy’ commenced with the arresting cameo of flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic playing Debussy’s plaintive Syrinx (1913) at the rear of the auditorium; overhead lights gradually raised on the platform from where Bloxham directed the CBSO in an engaging account of Printemps (1887). Whatever its formal inelegance and stylistic derivativeness, this two-movement piece has an insouciance and extroversion which Debussy only occasionally re-captured – enhanced by the knowing sophistication of Caplet’s orchestration a quarter-century later. Graźinytė-Tyla returned for George Benjamin’s Ringed by the Flat Horizon (1980), its evocation of desert storms rendered with a graphic immediacy and sure sense of purpose to make one regret that an unfortunate accident onstage meant the performance had to be curtailed before the close. The orchestra reassembled after a break for La Mer (1905) – emotional contrasts stressed a little too readily in ‘Jeux de vagues’, but with the outer movements bracingly projected to round off this final concert in impressive fashion.

Even on the basis of these Symphony Hall concerts, this Debussy Festival did its composer proud by conveying the sheer variety of his output and also its relevance to Western music during the century since his death. Omissions were few – of which the most significant, his full-length opera Pelléas et Mélisande, will be redressed with a concert performance on the 23rd June. For now, Graźinytė-Tyla deserves full credit for having initiated this ambitious festival: its orchestral events leaving no doubt as to the rapport between her and the CBSO.

For more information on the CBSO Debussy Festival, you can visit the event’s website

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

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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

Summary

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)

music-for-my-love

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

Summary

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

tui-bird
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

http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ef3zc8#b0640p40

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

tbc!

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