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Matthew CURTIS (b. 1959)
Orchestral Works
Fiesta (1983);
Amsterdam Suite (1995)
Pas de Deux (1981)
Symphonic Suite: Paths to Urbino (1997/8)
Two Pieces for Small Orchestra (1982, 2002)
Outward Bound (1995)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland
Recorded at Sony Music Studios, London, England, 1-2 July 2002


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I seem to recall Leonard Bernstein saying, "Thereís still plenty of music to be written in C major", or words to that effect. At least, I think it was Leonard Bernstein. Never mind, what concerns me is the sentiment itself, rather than the niceties of exactly what words were said and by whom. Sometimes when Iím having trouble getting off to sleep, rather than counting sheep I try to figure out just how many distinct tunes there can possibly be. Itís much harder than you might at first think. This fascinates me, but if you donít share that fascination, perhaps youíd better skip the next two paragraphs!

If we start with the relatively simple question of the number of "tunes" available to a dodecaphonic composer, we visualise a sort of finite, bounded universe of exactly "twelve factorial" (a mere 479,001,600) possible tone-rows from which to choose. However, things start to get out of hand when we start adding variables like octave displacements and note lengths. I find Iíve fallen asleep (which was, donít forget, the entire point of the exercise) long before I get on to the real tough nut - tonal music.

Tonal melodic lines (good, old-fashioned motives, themes and melodies) donít have a fixed number of notes. They can be just a couple of notes long, or dozens. The tonal universe is clearly bounded, but itís infinite - or to be more precise, indefinite. We end up contemplating the eternal conundrum concerning the length of a piece of string! Ah, but when we focus on the concept of a "tune", then however long that string is, it suddenly gets a lot shorter, because a tune has some very special properties. Iím not going to go into these here, otherwise thisíll dwarf even that gargantuan Barshai/Shostakovich review, but confine myself to the most relevant one: by far the vast majority of strings of notes, even where they are melodies, are not tunes.

Now, hereís my point. Youíd think, wouldnít you, that several hundred years of industrious tuneful invention might have seriously depleted the options for originality on that front? Tunes, those marvellous benign viruses that infect the mind and can take pleasurable weeks to cure (and even then itís usually by counter-infection with another, even more virulent "strain"!), get ever harder to invent - each tune that is conceived is one less that remains to be conceived. Thatís why I am so filled with boundless admiration for the talents of tunesmiths, those "mere" practitioners of the art of "light" music, and especially contemporary tunesmiths like the composer Matthew Curtis.

In his contribution to the booklet note Adrian Smith puts his finger right on the button, "... Matthewís music may be dismissed as insignificant and outmoded by the navel-gazers of the avant-garde ..." Oh, aye, thatís true enough, and of not only Matthew, but also plenty of others of his ilk! The way some navel-gazing folk talk, youíd think that writing tunes - patterns of notes that slip comfortably into your ears and cuddle your pleasure-bones - was dead easy. Well, it isnít - far from it. Itís a rare talent, and if you donít believe me put your fingers in your ears and just try it!

Where does Adrian Smith come in? Well, he was conductor of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra for thirty-odd years, up to his retirement in 2001, and now set fair to become a local legend in his own lifetime. As this orchestraís "official recordist", I first came across Matthewís music when I was recording the first concert of the SPOís centenary season in 1991, soon after the orchestra had returned to Huddersfield Town Hall as its performing venue. The opening item was a work commissioned from Matthew specially for the event, the Overture: An Improbable Centenary. Sadly, there wasnít room for that on this CD, "Sadly", because it has a clarinet tune thatís a classic "virus" that took me months to shake off. Ten years later, recording the revised version of the overture, I was re-infected with a vengeance. Under Adrianís baton, the SPO has given the world premières of a number of Matthewís pieces, including two of the works on this CD, the Amsterdam Suite (in 1996) and Paths to Urbino (in 1998). I guess that means I was responsible for the world première recordings, although any modest blushes were soon cut short by comparison of the quality of my efforts compared with this CD.

Of course, during the 1990s the mini-championship of Matthewís music by the Adrian and the SPO inevitably meant that I soon got to know this quiet, courteous and unassuming gentleman. Itís a strange contrast. From hearing his music, youíd expect to see a halo of coloured sparks fizzing out of his ears, and you donít know whether to be disappointed when you donít! As is often the case with quiet, courteous and unassuming gentlemen, there is far more than meets the eye. Matthew, as Adrian Smith and Michael Rostron (contributor of the other short personal appreciation in the booklet) both suggest, does write music more "serious" than the "classical" style of light music to be found on this CD, a suggestion echoed by certain of the pieces themselves.

However, the overwhelming impression given by these orchestral works is of a composer cast firmly in the Eric Coates mould - though I hasten to add that this should be taken in the same sort of light as saying that Beethoven is cast firmly in the Mozart/Haydn mould! To be sure, if youíre an "influence hunter", youíll find plenty of prey in the Curtis bushes, because Matthew is no different in this respect from any composer who has taken any notice of the music around him.

Others have commented at length about this, that or indeed the other influence, but there is one that hasnít been mentioned which I simply must tell you about. During the rehearsal for the first performance of Paths to Urbino, something in the fourth movement (Music of the Fields) brought me up short. Going straight over to Matthew, I asked him if he liked Rachmaninov. He said that he did, but was still mildly taken aback when I suggested that heíd almost quoted a theme from the Second Piano Concerto. The likeness was striking, but according to Matthew it was an entirely unconscious reference. I believe him - once theyíve wormed their way into your unconscious tunes can be sneaky little blighters, canít they?

Sometimes a cadence might seem a bit "obvious", but that is part and parcel of what makes a tune. Such seemingly facile cadences create for the audience cosy feelings of familiarity, which the cunning composer will turn to advantage when he does eventually confound expectations. Matthew casts his colourful inspirations in structures that are generally direct, owing significantly more to Haydn than to Brahms (or Mahler!). Like Haydn, his tunes and formal structures are allied in their apparent simplicity to produce music at once charming, witty, and rudely robust. However, if you must be given some idea of what his music is "like" before you chance your arm, then think "Coates" and you wonít go far wrong. I might add that there are far, far worse footsteps in which he could have followed!

Thereís just one other thing before we get to the actual review! Some folk, including the entire fraternity of "avant-garde navel gazers" I shouldnít wonder, point out with some disdain that after an hour it all starts to sound "a bit same-y". My response would be, "So what?" Sit down to a five course dinner and have five desserts washed down by half-pints of sweet sherry and, no matter how well prepared and presented it all is, youíll eventually gip on it. I have a similar problem with Haydn string quartets and Mozart piano concertos, and my solution is simple: make judicious use of the CD player controls and listen selectively. That way lies heaven!

Right, letís start with the wrappings. You get two lovely pictures, of the sorts of places that Matthew finds inspires the sort of pieces to be found on the record. Unfortunately, the one on the back "underlays" the only listing of the track details, making them difficult to read unless youíve got eyes like an eagle. I am told that there was to have been a plainly printed track listing inside the booklet, but in the event the space was pre-empted by advertising of other issues in the series. The less obvious, though obviously minor, disadvantage is that if youíre reading while you listen you find yourself juggling both booklet and case!

Inside, there are five sections: a potted background, programme notes by the composer, the two appreciations Iíve already mentioned, and bits about the orchestra and the conductor. All the ground is nicely covered (with inevitable slight overlaps), and all is well-written. Reading the information on Gavin Sutherland I discovered another "Huddersfield connection" - he graduated from Huddersfield University, where he must have been studying whilst the SPO were in the process of setting Matthewís music before the local public!

Another significant nugget of information is that "music for dance has played an important part in Gavin Sutherlandís career". Although only one piece on the CD explicitly refers to the dance, practically all of it would make good ballet material. That Gavin has an affinity with dance is particularly evident, as he is meticulous in his delineation of the ever-present and all-important dancing "heartbeat" with which Matthew suffuses his music, and he draws out every last ounce (or even gramme) of the musicís verve and poetry.

This impression is reinforced by the presence of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Fearlessly stating the glaringly obvious, I would suggest that this is an orchestra with the dance in its blood! It could be argued that it is a desk or two short of a full string section. Then again, it could be argued, and with greater force, that this is not so much a shortage as a virtue. In the fast music these slender-toned strings have a lightness, a lithe athleticism that sparkles beguilingly, and in the lyrical music a clean-limbed sweetness that stops well short of the maple-syrup sound that a fuller-bodied section would in all likelihood have bestowed. Of course, this would go for naught if they played as scrappily as kids in a playground ruck. Note carefully the use of that word "if"!

The artful articulation of the slim string section brings added value by the bucket-load. Brass, relieved of the need to roar like bulls to penetrate what would otherwise be a thick velvet curtain, can and do concentrate on agile articulation. Likewise the woodwind are never swallowed up in the tuttis, and can sing their many solos with seemingly effortless ease. Incidentally, several soloists are credited, but a lot more should have been. This lightness is necessary in Matthewís brand of light music, not because thereís anything intrinsically turbid about his scoring - precisely the opposite, in fact: it is necessary, to ensure that the waters of his delightfully artful orchestrations are not muddied!

That brings us to the recording. The production team of Philip Lane, Mike Ross-Trevor and Richard Scott seem to have been well aware of the keenness both of Matthewís scoring and of the orchestral ensemble, as these attributes are reflected in their deployment of relatively close-up microphony. What they give us is a "mid-stalls view" of very immediate strings with the rest of the orchestra close behind. There is some spotlighting of soloists and harp, bringing them slightly "forward". I wonder to what extent this was really necessary, but it is nevertheless sensitively judged and noticeable only if youíre an inveterate headphone user. The percussion are deliciously caught, as crisp as fresh, frost-crusted snow (helped by taut timpani and a bass drum that isnít over-effusive). All this crystalline clarity nestles in a cocoon of cosy ambience, giving an extremely pleasing sound near-ideally suited to the style of the music.

Comparisons are difficult, largely because of the lack of alternative recordings! Adrian Smith (in the two works I can compare) favours a view that is generally more expansive, in the time-honoured "JB" style. This is most apparent in the Trams and Crowds finale of the Amsterdam Suite (which features at least three eminently hummable tunes), where Gavin breasts the tape in five minutes, well over a minute ahead of Adrian! However, neither is winner or loser. Each approach pays its own dividends, which says much for the robustness of the music alluded to earlier.

I realise that I havenít said much about the individual works. Being my usual, scrupulously honest self, I must say that I really donít need to. If the concept of "light music" being carried into the new millennium tickles your interest at all, if you get even the vaguest tingle of anticipation at the prospect of hearing the music of someone who is "like" Eric Coates and yet retains his very own, individual flavour, if youíre that rarest of rare birds, a navel-gazer of the avant-garde whose ears are not plugged against a voice that is at once dyed-in-the-wool traditional and fresh as a daisy in spring, but most of all if you love good music, then get this CD and listen to it (but not all at once, mind!). Am I overstating the case? Well, thatís something else youíll find out, isnít it?

Paul Serotsky

see also review by Rob Barnett

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