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Colin MATTHEWS (b. 1946)
Aftertones. Three Landscapes of Edmund Blunden for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra (2000) [27:13]
Crossing the Alps (2009)* [6:21]
No Man’s Land (2011) [26:54]
Ian Bostridge (tenor); Roderick Williams (baritone)
Hallé Choir; *Hallé Youth Choir
Hallé/*Richard Wilberforce/Nicholas Collon
rec. 5-9 June, 2014, Hallé St. Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester
English texts included
HALLÉ CDHLL7538 [60:47]

I’ve bought several discs of the orchestral music of David Matthews – only the Seventh Symphony has yet to find a place in my collection – and I’ve admired what I’ve heard. However, I’m much less familiar with the music of his brother, Colin, though I was very taken with his orchestrations of the Debussy Préludes (review ~ review). Here, however, the Hallé presents a disc of his original music – and not for the first time; they’ve already released a disc, which I’ve not heard, that includes his Horn Concerto and Alphabicycle Order for narrator, children’s choir and orchestra (review).

As we learn from the composer’s own notes, the two large-scale pieces on this present disc have strong links with World War I, so a recording of each in the year that we mark the centenary of the outbreak of that conflict is very appropriate. Aftertones was written for the Huddersfield Choral Society as a piece to mark the Millennium and, in choosing then to set poems by the war poet, Edmund Blunden, Matthews was mindful that “to celebrate the twenty-first century means absorbing the lessons of the twentieth.” No Man’s Land, here performed by the two soloists for whom it was written, I believe, was proposed by Richard Hickox as a work to be premièred at a 2011 Prom to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the City of London Sinfonia. Tragically, Hickox put that idea to Colin Matthews in a phone conversation a mere three days before his untimely and sudden death in November 2008. So the work that Mathews eventually composed became a piece written in memory of Hickox and, as such, not the celebratory composition that the conductor had originally had in mind.

In Aftertones Matthews sets three poems by Blunden and here I must congratulate the producers of this disc who have split the work up into thirteen different tracks – and No Man’s Land into sixteen; it makes it so much easier to follow the progress of the settings. The first of the Aftertones poems is ‘Estrangement’. The text, the composer tells us, ‘depicts a bleak war-torn landscape, yet the mood is one more of nobility than bitterness.’ Much of the music in this movement is expansive, the choral writing homophonic. The orchestral parts tend to be more busy and Matthews is imaginative in his use of colours. It sounds to me as if the choral writing is challenging yet within the scope of a well-prepared amateur choir. The second poem is ‘Aftermath’. Here the pace is quicker. Matthews describes the text as ‘a dance of death, in which the poem’s imagery paints an objective picture of the field of war, almost as if removed from personal experience.’ This is unsettled and unsettling music; the orchestral part is often astringent. It seems to me that the music has a sinister, even malevolent feel.

There follows a short interlude for strings and harp, which is quite highly charged though in a very different way from the similarly-scored Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth. That brief passage – just over three minutes in length – acts as an introduction to the third and final setting: ‘Death of Childhood Beliefs’. This includes a prominent solo part, originally for a mezzo though it has been “reworked” for the voice of Roderick Williams. I wonder how much re-writing was necessary: the part is often high-lying but since Williams possesses an enviably secure top register he copes with the tessitura effortlessly. The Blunden poem in question is not specifically a war poem but one in which, Matthews says, ‘a pastoral childhood landscape gradually merges into something approaching nightmare.’ It opens quite innocently with a lyrical, often high-lying solo. With an accompaniment of gently swirling woodwind and soft strings Matthews here evokes an English pastoral ambience, albeit one with a pronounced twenty-first century tinge. After the choir enters the music gradually becomes more intense and eventually a very powerful climax is attained, involving all the performers. Matthews then achieves a most satisfying close by reprising the fourth stanza of the poem set for the choir in tender, homophonic music with just the lightest of accompaniment.

Aftertones was a pretty sobering musical greeting to the new millennium but it serves a wider purpose, and certainly fits well with the kind of reflection that the centenary of the Great War has provoked. I was impressed by the music and also by this strongly committed performance.

Though No Man’s Land was not intended to commemorate the Great War, as I’ve explained, it fits very well indeed with that observance. Colin Matthews explains that he’s long been fascinated by that conflict: his maternal grandfather perished at the Somme. Rather than set words by any of the war poets Mathews turned to Christopher Reid who provided a text specially for this work – there are some minor discrepancies between Reid’s text as printed in the booklet and the words that Matthews set.

In the unforgettable setting of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange meeting’ in Britten’s War Requiem we encounter the spirits of two soldiers who, we come to realise, have been on opposite sides of the battle. Christopher Reid here also presents us with two dead soldiers but these are comrades in arms: a captain and a sergeant, who have been killed and whose bodies hang side by side on the barbed wire because it’s not possible for anyone to retrieve their corpses. The role of the captain is assigned to the tenor while the baritone is his more down-to-earth sergeant.

The subtitle of the work is Airs & Ditties of No Man’s Land. At times the two characters sing together but more often they are heard singing solos and the music given to each reflects their very different characters. The captain is the thinker of the two. To him is given a good deal of reflective, impassioned music – and words. The sergeant is the down-to-earth, seen-it-all-before type and his contributions tend to reflect the attitudes of the working man, the professional soldier. He is usually stoic and often sardonic or ironic; quite a lot of his music is in tune – literally – with the popular music of the time. If I have a criticism of the performance – and it’s an extremely minor one – the characteristically impeccable diction of Roderick Williams occasionally sounds just a little too cultivated for his character. However, the performance benefits enormously from the fact that both Williams and Ian Bostridge are singers renowned for their care for the words they are singing. So not only is the text crystal clear at all times but also all the nuances of meaning and feeling come across extremely well.

The accompaniment is interesting. Besides the orchestra itself, which I suspect is quite modest in size, a jangling, slightly out of tune piano, such as one might have found in a war-time mess, features quite often. We also hear occasional snippets from contemporaneous recordings; most memorably, at the very end a rather fruity female singer is heard singing the old recruiting song ‘We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go’. There are sixteen separate sections in the score, all of them quite short, but the work is not disjointed in any way. In fact Matthews has responded very acutely to Reid’s imaginative text and has woven the parts for the two dead soldiers into a convincing musical conversation. It’s a strange, unusual and provocative score and it definitely deserves a place among the musical responses to the 1914-18 conflict and the wider issues of war and peace that the commemoration of that war raises. The performance is very fine. The two soloists are superb and Nicholas Collon gets piquant, pithy playing from the members of the Hallé.

In between these two substantial scores is placed Crossing the Alps, a short piece for nearly-unaccompanied SATB choir, divided into eight parts. Why do I say “nearly-unaccompanied”? The music is harmonically complex and so Colin Matthews took the pragmatic decision to include a part for organ pedals, as a very discreet support for the singers. There’s also an optional part which can be played on the organ manual but so far as I can tell this isn’t used here – indeed, the pedal part is all-but inaudible, by design I’m sure. It’s an interesting piece in which the choral textures are predominantly light. The young, fresh voices of the Hallé Youth Choir conducted by Richard Wilberforce, their director, make a very good job of what is clearly a demanding piece – the tonality is constantly shifting and even with the support from the organ it must be a challenge to keep the harmonies in tune. Placed between the other two works Crossing the Alps here assumes something of the function of a musical sorbet or, perhaps more aptly, one of the shorter movements between the big dramatic movements of the Second or Third symphonies of Matthews’ beloved Mahler.

The recordings were made, presumably under studio conditions, at the Hallé’s rehearsal and performance facility at Hallé St. Peter’s, Ancoats in Manchester. This is a new venue to me so far as Hallé recordings are concerned but it seems to produce excellent results. The recordings, which are good, have been engineered by the label’s usual engineer, Steve Portnoi and the composer himself has acted as producer. There’s a good booklet, including all the texts and the fact that the notes are in French and German as well as English indicates that, very rightly, this release is not intended to be parochial.

The music on this disc is very interesting and the performers have served Colin Matthews very well.

John Quinn