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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
also review by Rob Barnett