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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Colin MATTHEWS (b. 1946)
Sonata No. 5 Landscape
Cello Concerto No. 1
Hidden Variables
Memorial
Quatrain
Machines and Dreams

Alexander Baillie (cello)
London Sinfonietta
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/John Carewe
London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
Recorded at the Grosser Sendesaal, Berlin, October 1984 (Sonata No. 5); Watford Town Hall, August 1985 (Cello Concerto No. 1); Barbican Centre, January 1991 (Machines and Dreams); Abbey Road Studios, London, July 1995 (Hidden Variables, Memorial and Quatrain). DDD
NMC ANCORA NMC D101 [58:11 + 50:27]

 

Given the extensive commitment that Colin Matthews has given to NMC both administratively and in his role as executive producer, it seems entirely fitting that this latest release in the already valuable mid-price Ancora series, should be of his own orchestral music. The double disc set draws together recordings previously available on Unicorn-Kanchana in the case of the Sonata No. 5 and Cello Concerto No.1, with the other pieces having been on the much lamented Collins Classics label.

What we get is a fascinating contrast between the Matthews of the expansive orchestral canvasses, the master of large-scale formal architecture and the writer of more concentrated works. The route of Matthews’ development has been a journey through compositional diversities embracing his responses to the stylistic issues evolving around him in the wider contemporary music world. On the face of it all this is a far cry from his, and his brother David’s, early involvement with Imogen Holst and Benjamin Britten; not to mention his work, as close collaborator with Deryck Cooke, on the realisation of Mahler’s sketches for the Tenth Symphony.

For a period during this journey the impact of minimalism found its way into his psyche. In reality the influence is refracted through his own musical intellect and can often be realised with devilishly ingenious results. The execution is always strictly controlled, leaving no doubt that Matthews is in complete charge of his material and direction. Hidden Variables was written in its original 1989 version for the chamber forces of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group with Matthews subsequently revising the piece in 1992 for large orchestra as heard here. In his excellent booklet notes Andrew Clements aptly comments that the music "careers off into wicked little vignettes of a number of the leading minimalist composers". Matthews rightly points out that the minimalist ideas are his own and not quotes; yet the allusions are clear. Steve Reich and John Adams are amongst the more obvious "victims" with Matthews weaving his ideas into a showpiece that is not only great fun but also highly virtuosic.

The contrast with Memorial could hardly be starker. Matthews wrote the work in the wake of a visit to northern France to see the grave of his grandfather who died on the Somme. Appropriately perhaps it was also a commission for Mstislav Rostropovich and his festival of the music of Benjamin Britten in 1993. Britten would surely have approved of its powerful expression of the futility of war. This is Matthews at his most personal and the five contrasting movements, by turns turbulent, clangorous and unsettling are summed up in a concluding processional of considerable cumulative power.

Quatrain, like Hidden Variables, takes us back to the Matthews of the virtuosic showpiece and is as concentrated as Landscape is expansive. Scored for wind, brass and percussion, the bright and brilliant sound-world is superbly captured by the players of the London Symphony Orchestra with the four continuous, fleeting movements each exploiting timbres and textures in an almost mesmerising parade of instrumental detail and activity.

Although it bears the hallmarks of Matthews’ interest in minimalism once again, Machines and Dreams proceeds along an utterly different musical path to Hidden Variables. Conceived as a piece to include children, the odd numbered movements (there are five in all) are the "machines" in which the children participate with a wide array of percussion instruments. The even numbered "dreams" are reserved for the orchestra alone and are more representative of the composer’s mature style. The second is a dream-like nightscape and the fourth a fleeting, mercurial scherzo that occasionally brings to mind the music of Oliver Knussen, a close friend and staunch champion of the Matthews. Take a listen to the third movement Andante uccelloso, a wonderful Messiaen-like birdscape with all manner of bird calls from the children’s exotic instruments. The arcade games and football chants of the final movement are proof that Matthews has a finely honed sense of musical humour!

Sonata No. 5 Landscape and the Cello Concerto No. 1 quite rightly share a disc of their own, being two of the composer’s most impressive musical structures. Few British composers that immediately leap to mind (Nicholas Maw being one of the possible exceptions) could sustain a single musical span of over thirty minutes duration with the logic and cohesion that Matthews demonstrates here. It is an ability that in no short measure stems from his early immersion in the music of Mahler. Interestingly, one of the composer’s other major works available on NMC is entitled "The Great Journey" although it is for somewhat different reasons that a sense of journey inhabits Landscape, albeit one with "three starts and several false arrivals" as Matthews points out. The rigorous structure was conceived before the notes, the idea stemming from three journeys progressing from darkness to light. Hence each section grows out of the shadows of its opening in a series of strongly contrasting orchestral soundscapes, the "landscapes" of the title.

The Cello Concerto is no less structured but this time falls into two distinct movements, each of which can be broken down into a number of sub-sections. In the first movement these take the form of a succession of fleeting scherzos and trios that fly by at a mesmerising pace, the tempo nearly always fast. The magically atmospheric second movement is predominantly slow and ensures a sense of balance to the overall plan before the music of the first movement makes reappearance shortly before the close. Both works are here given fine performances, the former with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under the experienced direction of John Carewe. However, the eloquence of Alexander Baillie’s playing in the Cello Concerto marks it out as a particularly notable achievement.

This two-disc set could not better reflect the sheer range and ingenuity of Colin Matthews’s music and having these works back in the catalogue is to be applauded in every way. I only hope that a similar credit can be paid to his brother David, whose vastly differing output is somewhat underrated in comparison.

As was the original conception of NMC, the intention with Ancora is to keep music permanently in the catalogue, thereby avoiding the curse of deletions that continues to be ongoing, particularly in the field of contemporary music. The quantity of British music that deserves to benefit from such an enterprise is daunting and consequently it is unrealistic to expect too much too soon. However, the early signs from discs already released are that this series could well go from strength to strength and with so much valuable recorded material available it will be a pleasure to see the label develop.

Christopher Thomas



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