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Colin MATTHEWS (b. 1946)
The Great Journey (1988) [49:00]
Fuga (1988) [10:39]
Night’s Mask (1984) [11:07]
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)
Patrizia Kwella (soprano)
The Nash Ensemble/Lionel Friend
Sung texts included
rec. July 1990, Blackheath Concert Halls, London
NMC D033 [71:44]

At the end of July, I’m hoping to attend and review for Seen and Heard a performance of The Great Journey at the 2021 Three Choirs Festival. As the work was completely unknown to me, I thought I should do some homework by listening to what I believe to be its only recording. I can’t see that we’ve reviewed this disc before on Musicweb International so I thought it worthwhile to draw the attention of our readers to it.
 
The Great Journey was originally selected for performance at the 2020 Three Choirs Festival when it would have fitted in brilliantly with the Festival’s theme of ‘Voyages’, picking up on the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower to North America. That Festival fell victim to the Covid pandemic but Colin Matthews’ piece has been carried over to the 2021 Festival where it will fit just as well with this year’s theme of journey and exploration under the title ‘Bold Adventures’.

Colin Matthews has composed a score which is remarkable on several fronts. It is daringly unusual in its subject matter and choice of text. It tells the story of one of the Conquistadores, Alvar Nuņez Cabeza de Vaca (c 1490 – c1560). Crucially, the work tells Cabeza de Vaca’s story in his own words. He wrote a lengthy report for the Emperor Charles V when he had returned to Spain from the Americas. This was published in 1542 and was subsequently translated into English in 1625. Matthews adapted his text from that English translation. In a moment I’ll give a little more detail about the adventures described in The Great Journey but it’s worth mentioning first what happened to Cabeza de Vaca later in life. Six years after he returned to Spain following the events of The Great Journey he was appointed Governor of Paraguay. There, he tried to rule in a benign way but this was a disastrous failure. Recalled to Spain, he was tried and imprisoned. In Colin Matthews’ words Cabeza de Vaca “died obscure and dishonoured”. That’s a cause for sorrow because Cabeza de Vaca attempted to govern Paraguay in an enlightened fashion as a direct result of his earlier experiences in the New World, experiences which form the narrative of The Great Journey.
 
I learned from the composer’s detailed booklet notes that Cabeza de Vaca’s first exposure to the New World came in 1527 when he took part, as treasurer of the fleet, in an unsuccessful expedition to Florida led by Panfilio de Navarez. Matthews’ score is divided into four parts. Part I, ‘Shipwreck’, describes how, soon after Cabeza de Vaca landed in a bay in Cuba, a huge storm arose which dispersed and damaged the fleet, causing significant loss of life. In Part II, ‘Landing’, Cabeza de Vaca and his few surviving comrades reach the American mainland where they first encounter Indians. Eventually, however, a famine occurs and the Spaniards resolve to journey on overland to find somewhere better to live. At the start of Part III, ‘Flight’, they are about to set out on this journey when Cabeza de Vaca falls sick and is left behind. After many months enduring difficult conditions, he makes his escape and, with the help of some other Indians, he locates three other survivors of his party. During this part of the narrative Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions establish a good relationship with the Indians by healing several of them from sickness. In Part IV, ‘Return’, the intrepid explorers set out for the West coast. When they get there, they find Indian villages abandoned and destroyed. This turns out to be the work of ‘the Christians’ (in other words, their compatriots) with whom, in company with some Indians, they eventually meet up. Cabeza de Vaca leaves his reader in no doubt that his sympathies lie completely with the Indians rather than the rapacious Christians.

Just before the end of the piece Cabeza de Vaca utters some words which make it crystal clear that he had come to despise the ways of the Conquistadores: ‘Ten thousand leagues we travailed by land and sea, and we crossed from one sea to another. Much we learned, and our learning cost us much paine, at that time and on our retourn; for our Countriemen held us not in honour, and we no longer respected them’ (my italics). Reading or hearing these words, one understands why Cabeza de Vaca later attempted to govern Paraguay fairly. The tale that is told in The Great Journey is an epic one, but by the time it concludes we can see that what is described is not just a physical journey: although he did not set out with this intention, Cabeza de Vaca endured a moral and emotional journey too. But the sympathies he came to have for the indigenous people would have cut little ice with his fellow conquistadores, who would have found such scruples completely incomprehensible; hence, no doubt, the imprisonment and disgrace that followed his time in Paraguay.

So, it’s a moral tale but it’s also a vivid and dramatic story and Colin Matthews’ setting of Cabeza de Vaca’s words is certainly vivid and dramatic. I understand from the composer’s booklet note that “[m]uch of the music is based directly or indirectly on music by the earliest known Mexican composer, Fernando Franco (c1520-1585)”. I must confess that only in the second half of Part III could I clearly discern the sixteenth-century influence on Matthews’ music. Elsewhere I suspect the allusions are more subtle than I’ve so far been able to grasp.

The piece is scored for baritone and an ensemble of eight players, The instrumentation consists of flute (doubling alto flute and piccolo), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), French horn, viola, cello, double bass, piano and percussion (1 player). The percussionist is required to play a veritable battery of instruments. Throughout the piece I was consistently amazed at the variety of sonorities and colours Matthews conjures up from such a small ensemble. The scoring displays huge invention and it teems with incident. The score frequently demands playing of great incisiveness and the members of The Nash Ensemble deliver the goods. They are just as impressive in the several passages where Matthews’ orchestration – for such it is, despite the small number of players involved – is more subdued and subtle (I think, for example, of the gentle opening to Part II and the start of Part IV). In these episodes the players display great finesse. At the other end of the volume spectrum, the power with which the storm is projected in Part I is such that one could be forgiven for thinking that several more instruments had been involved. Throughout the score, these eight musicians play with staggering virtuosity under the direction of Lionel Friend.

No less virtuosity is required from the baritone soloist. In fact, this is something of an epic role. I would hazard a guess that the singer is involved for at least 75% of the score’s duration. When you factor in as well that the role covers a huge vocal compass – including a good deal of singing at the top of the soloist’s register – and a very wide dynamic range, then it becomes clear how challenging is the role. But the challenges are not limited to technical factors. The soloist has to be a narrator par excellence. It is this latter element that I most particularly admire David Wilson-Johnson. He tells the story in a way that is completely compelling. I found his depiction of Cabeza de Vaca’s character absolutely convincing. He held my attention throughout. Incidentally, Colin Matthews’ vocal writing is terrific. Sometimes, as at the beginning, the soloist adopts a parlando style but always the vocal part consists of sung notes: there are no unusual vocal effects and for that I’m most grateful. At the very end of the piece, we discover that Cabeza de Vaca’s description of his travails in the New World was written while he was incarcerated in Spain. The very last line of the piece is ‘I, Alvar Nuņez, called Cabeza de Vaca, write this in the tenth year of my imprisonment’. Wilson-Johnson delivers this sign-off with bitter anger.

The Great Journey is an astonishing piece, vividly imagined by its composer and here superbly performed. (These artists are the co-dedicatees and gave the work its first performances.) The work deserves to be widely known and appreciated. I’m eager to hear it live but I’m thrilled that it’s available on CD and in such a superb, committed performance.

The disc also includes Fuga, a short independent instrumental work. This is, in fact, an instrumental version of Part III of The Great Journey scored for identical forces. In this version, shorn of vocal narrative, the scherzo qualities of the music are even more apparent than in the main work.

The final work on the programme is Night’s Mask. This is a setting of an English sonnet written by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1885-1935). The poem in question was one of a collection, Poemas Ingleses, published in 1918. The piece was written for Patrizia Kwella, so this is another performance which, like the other two, carries special authority. The work is scored for soloist and an ensemble of seven players – alto flute (& piccolo), bass clarinet (& clarinet), horn, piano, harp, viola and cello. Much of the music is slow in pace and features long sensuous vocal lines although there are two short instrumental interludes where the tempo is quicker, Patrizia Kwella sings superbly. Her part is challenging in its vocal compass but even though she is often taken up into the uppermost reaches of her register, tone quality and evenness of line never suffer. Best of all, she sings most expressively. The members of The Nash Ensemble play with great sensitivity to the many subtleties of the scoring This is a lovely piece and I’m delighted that I’ve discovered it.

The engineering was in the expert hands of Mike Hatch who has recorded the performers very well indeed. The recordings were produced by the composer and I’m sure he was delighted by the skill and commitment which all the performers have lavished on his music. The booklet, which is in English, French and German, includes a short essay about Colin Matthews’ music in general by Paul Griffiths and a detailed note on the music itself by the composer. I’ve drawn on the latter for the historical background and in my summary of what is described in The Great Journey. The words are provided, albeit only in English. The text of The Great Journey is long and detailed and I strongly approve of the way NMC have presented it. The recording of the work is divided into 14 tracks and the track numbers are included within the printed text so that the listener has no difficulty in following – it helps also that David Wilson-Johnson’s diction is consistently clear.

The Great Journey is an enthralling work and it’s hard to imagine that it could have been better served than in this recording.

John Quinn



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