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The Heart’s Assurance”, Matthews recalls, “and I wrote a song cycle to Keyes’ words as long ago as 1968, long since withdrawn.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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On record: Sinfonia of London / John Wilson – English Music for Strings (Chandos)

Sinfonia of London / John Wilson

Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge Op.10 (1937)
Bridge Lament (1915)
Berkeley Serenade for Strings Op.12 (1938-9)
Bliss Music for Strings (1935)

Chandos CHAN 5264 [64’46”]
Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Alex James

Recorded 9-11 January 2020, Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

After three wonderful albums extolling the virtues of French orchestral music, Korngold and Respighi, John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London charges turn much closer to home with a set of British music for strings drawn from the 1930s. They begin with an established classic, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, complemented by two neglected works from Sir Lennox Berkeley (his Serenade for Strings) and Sir Arthur Bliss (the Music for Strings), neither of which appears to have been recorded in the last 20 years. There is also room for the brief Lament from 1915 by Bridge himself.

What’s the music like?

Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge will be familiar to many, but rarely in a performance as good as this. The theme, lovingly drawn from the Second Idyll for string quartet of Britten’s teacher, receives a virtuoso treatment, taken through a number of wildly differing dance forms before a powerful fugue and finale. The variations are sharply contrasted, with a crisp March at odds with the loving Romance that follows; the fulsome Wiener Walzer countered by the rush of a Moto perpetuo.

Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings works really well in this company. It is a work beginning with outward optimism but which ultimately falling under the shadow of the imminent Second World War. A busy first movement, its Baroque influences brought out by Wilson, is complemented by an inward looking but tender Andantino. Berkeley finds renewed energy in a quickfire Scherzo, but that is trumped by the closing Lento, which leaves a lasting impression, reflecting the anxiety felt as the 1930s drew to a close.

There is a good deal of positive energy in Bliss’ Music for Strings. Taking a lead from Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro of 1905, the composer writes for a full string orchestra but often picks out a smaller group of soloists. The substantial three movements show a masterly command of the string orchestra, from the wide span of the vigorous first movement to the meaningful Romance that follows, with lovely rich contributions from violas and cellos. The third movement starts hesitantly, in the depths, but soon the light breaks through to an effervescent finale.

Does it all work?

Everything works here, thanks to the thoroughly assertive performances secured by Wilson. He is quite quick on the draw with the theme for Britten’s variations, maybe quicker than some would like, but the thrills and spills that follow make this one of the finest versions available. The Aria Italiana has all guns blazing in a wonderful display of precision and power, while the Funeral March has a searing and chilling clarity.

Successful though the Britten is, it is the Berkeley and Bliss that ultimately give the disc its importance. The Berkeley is keenly felt, positive in its fast music but anxious in its two slower movements and raising emotional questions in the fourth. Wilson catches its air of uncertainty at the world in which we live, as relevant now as it was then.

The Bliss has terrific drive in its faster music, which builds up a thoroughly convincing momentum while succeeding in bringing forward the writing for the chamber ensemble at the front. The textures are beautifully clear thanks to the Chandos recording, the quicker melodies’ punchy phrasing cutting through easily.

The Bridge Lament, though short, proves a mellow complement to the Britten, a chance for the listener to collect their thoughts while the Sinfonia play with a beautiful, muted sound.

Is it recommended?

In every way. John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London breathe new life into this music, and their programme is superbly judged to bring two neglected and very fine works back into contention. The cover, a painting of Bliss’s Pen Pits house by Edward Wadsworth, is the icing on the cake with its classic 1930s style.

For further information on this release, visit the Chandos website.

Arcana’s best of 2020

written by Ben Hogwood

Before finishing for Christmas and New Year celebrations, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the musical year that has been 2020. And what a year. I doubt we will experience its like again, that’s for sure – and those of you reading this will no doubt have had some incredible challenges to overcome, or have been instrumental in helping other with their challenges. Everything is firmly in perspective, that is for sure.

In the year of a global pandemic, as in all times of strife, music has been there offering a consoling shoulder to lean on. Much of my listening this year has been of the ambient kind, a place of retreat when all has been too frenetic / inhuman / scary. Music has really shown us its true colours again this year, offering the required escape route along with some real inspiration.

Live music, of course, has suffered greatly, and my thoughts are with all those musicians and people working behind the scenes in the arts, their lives irrevocably affected by COVID. As listeners we thank them for their remarkable resilience and inventiveness, bringing live-streamed concerts of such quality they have been the best possible substitute for the real thing. Wigmore Hall set the scene in June, and many others have followed. The orchestras and choirs should be held in the highest regard for their efforts.

Needless to say I did not attend many concerts in 2020, but two of great note were from soprano Louise Alder (above) and pianist Joseph Middleton, showcasing their exceptional album Lines written during a sleepless night at Wigmore Hall in January, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Iván Fischer performing the last three Mozart symphonies at the Royal Festival Hall in February.

I wanted to share with you my favourite music on record this year. It was of course Beethoven 250, and my aim was to listen to the composer’s entire works. That aim continues, but the deadline has been extended massively! It is proving a thoroughly enjoyable experience but circumstances mean it has taken much longer than expected. To enjoy the listening project to its full potential, I look forward to reconvening with the first Sonatas for cello and piano in 2021, and taking it over the finishing line later in the year.

This year’s new releases have been extremely fine – and I have eight to share with you here, beginning with Steven Osborne’s remarkable disc of three Prokofiev piano sonatas on Hyperion. This appeared at the same time as the Coronavirus and felt like a direct response to it. Prokofiev was writing these works during the Second World War, in part a reaction to intense world and personal strife, and what a performance they get from the Hyperion pianist. You can read about them here

On the orchestral front, John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London came out with a simply outstanding program of French music. Escales did the wonderful job of blending seasoned favourites such as Chabrier’s España with gems that benefited from a dusting off – Duruflé’s Trois Danses and Ibert’s Escales among them. My thoughts on the disc are here

One of the most striking contemporary releases this year capped a fine showing from Kenneth Woods, both with the English Symphony Orchestra and as here with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Philip Sawyers’ Symphony no.4 and Hommage to Kandinsky are captured by Richard Whitehouse in this review of two exceptional pieces of new music, given great performances under conductor Kenneth Woods.

Of the electronica that I mentioned, there are some rather special examples. First among them is Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Mosaic Of Transformation, an enchanting journey of vividly coloured musical motifs. I attempted to describe them and their impact here

For something closer to home, Erland Cooper’s Hether Blether signed off his Orcadian trilogy with deeply emotive recollections and portraits of home. Complementing the previous instalments Solan Goose and Sule Skerry, it was a life affirming, communal piece of work uniting thoughts at just the right time. You can read Arcana’s interview with Erland here

Meanwhile Bruce Brubaker & Max Cooper took a minimalist composer as their inspiration for Glassforms, a set of electronic reworkings of the music of Philip Glass. Rather than simply dress up the originals, it is an imaginative and very well thought-out set of recastings, detailed here

Also taking inspiration from similarly minimal sources were New York’s Bing & Ruth, through the excellent Species long player. You can read about it here – and the background to the album in an emotive interview with leader David Moore here

On the other end of the scale sit Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble. After a series of stripped back piano albums this is Wakeman at his progressive best, in the company of some exceptional musicians, creating some dramatic and involving music. You can read Arcana’s review here – and an extensive interview with the keyboard wizard here

For music of great verve and positivity, drummer Tony Allen’s collaboration with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, posthumously published, took some beating. The recordings were made in 2010, but were unfinished at the time of Masekela’s death. The passing of Allen himself this year lent their completion extra poignancy. It was the closest I could find to pure musical joy in 2020, as documented here!

Meanwhile, returning after a long break was Charles Webster, making Decision Time – an album of very fine, futuristic soul and deep house. Much has changed since we last heard from Webster in this way, but his musical values remain the same, as reported here

It is not too much of a stylistic shift from Webster to Róisín Murphy, where we find my personal album of the year. Róisín Machine is a brilliant combination of Murphy’s effervescent, spiky personality and some really fine future disco, created with the help of Crooked Man (aka Richard Barratt). As noted here, it has the resilience and strength in the face of adversity we all needed in 2020, but crucially the sense of fun we will still need – and will surely get back – in 2021. Happy Christmas!

Sound of mind – New releases

This is not a regular feature, but I thought it would be good to highlight new albums released today that fall into Arcana’s ‘circle of interest’ – the idea being that listening to them or hopefully even buying them will reward the creators in these difficult times. So, without further ado…

Víkingur Ólafsson releases his much-anticipated third album for DG today. A collection of music for keyboard by Rameau and Debussy, it has the hallmarks of Ólafsson’s meticulous presentation, and – I suspect – his meticulous and intimate approach, which has proved so effective with his albums of Philip Glass Etudes and Bach keyboard music.

Sticking with classical music but moving ever so slightly closer to Hollywood, the Sinfonia of London and John Wilson release their third collaboration on Chandos today. It sees them returning to Korngold, whose Symphony in F sharp major they played so brilliantly to celebrate their rebirth as an orchestra. This time they are taking on the composer’s glitzy Violin Concerto, with soloist Andrew Haveron stepping up from duties as orchestral leader. This is coupled with the substantial String Sextet, a work definitely worth getting to know:

Switching on the power, we arrive at Daniel Avery and his collaboration with Nine Inch NailsAlessandro Cortini, Illusion Of Time. This is an intriguing match that on first listen is a successful blend of electronic soundscapes, with Avery’s wide open perspective and Cortini’s analogue synth sensibilities complementing each other:

It’s great to see Little Dragon back. The Swedish band have changed labels, arriving at Ninja Tune – and their sixth album New Me, Same Us. It finds them rejuvenated and pressing forward, with Yukimi Nagano providing the ever-distinctive vocals.

Moving outside of Europe we come to Tamikrest. I can’t pretend to have a good knowledge of African music, but here is a band I have latched onto for their unique blend of Tuareg music and rock. Their new record Tamotaït has the same thrilling combination of propulsive rhythms and heat-soaked atmosphere:

Finally – if you’re after a good house party for your nearest and dearest – you would do well to consider including some of the new Dua Lipa album! She may not be someone who needs the investment, but you can guarantee good vibes throughout Future Nostalgia, especially when the likes of hit singles Don’t Start Now and Physical are present.

In concert – Leonidas Kavakos, Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson: Elgar Symphony no.3; Barber & Korngold

Leonidas Kavakos (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 27 February 2020

Barber First Essay Op.12 (1937)
Korngold Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1945)
Elgar, realized Anthony Payne Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.88 (1933; 1993-4)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credit (John Wilson) Sim Canetty-Clarke

It is good to see John Wilson taking up more concert engagements, so putting his talent at the service of symphonic repertoire. Tonight, he directed the Philharmonia in a programme that culminated with quite possibly the finest reading Elgar’s Third Symphony has yet received.

The relatively brief first half commenced with Barber’s First Essay, written in the wake of his soon-to-be ubiquitous Adagio and given a high-profile launch by Arturo Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic. Succinct to a fault, the sombre rumination of its initial section soon makes way for music of brittle aggression (such as Britten surely had in mind writing the Dies irae section of his Sinfonia da Requiem two years later), and reaches a short-lived climax with the return of the piece’s opening which itself subsides into musing expectation.

A timely revival, whereas Korngold’s Violin Concerto now seems almost too familiar since coming in from the cold some quarter-century ago. Leonidas Kavakos has become one of his staunchest advocates, but while his recent Proms account often verged towards the soporific, this evening saw much greater focus; not least an initial Moderato whose yearning melodies were rendered with real incisiveness, then a Romanze whose lush textures and diaphanous harmonies never risked becoming cloying. If the final Allegro was even more impressive, this was because what is ostensibly the weakest movement emerged on a par with those before – Kavakos pointing up its effervescence while keeping any indulgence in check on route to the heady return of its opening theme, in what is a coup de théâtre even by Korngold’s standards.

Wilson has already demonstrated his Vaughan Williams credentials, and is evidently no less at home in Elgar. Some 22 years on from its premiere and the Third Symphony, as realized by Anthony Payne, continues to fascinate and exasperate in equal measure – yet, while there can be no denying its conjectural status, what came over here was Wilson’s conviction as he steered a purposeful course through the opening movement – pulling together what can feel a prolix development then evincing similar grip and determination in the coda. What follows was ideally poised between scherzo and intermezzo, its balletic and song-like strains eliding seamlessly, while the Adagio has seldom sounded more potent in its wrenching dissonances and wan consolation as lead to a coda whose fragmented texture only emphasized its pathos.

On to the finale (Wilson rightly ensured minimal pause between movements) and while there was no lack of finesse in the shaping of its themes, Wilson made relative light of there being no concrete development section by bringing its nominally tentative variants into tensile and, above all, cumulative accord. This carried through into the coda – undoubtedly the best Payne which Elgar never wrote and whose spirit of reaching out towards whatever might lie beyond was palpably conveyed as the music receded, slowly but never disconsolately, toward silence.

At some 50 minutes this was as taut and incisive a reading as the piece can yet have received, but the essential rightness of Wilson’s approach could not be doubted. Payne himself looked mightily impressed, and one can only hope a recording with the Philharmonia is in the offing.