Colin Matthews Demonstrates Skill as Composer and Orchestrator

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Colin Matthews, Britten, Piper, Elgar:  Robert Plane (clarinet), Neil Percy (percussion), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 19.2.2013 (PCG)

Colin Matthews: Reflected images
Britten,arr Matthews: Movements for a Clarinet Concerto
Charlie Piper: The twittering machine
Elgar: Enigma Variations

Colin Matthews explained his Reflected images written in 2003 as an offshoot of his work on his imaginative orchestrations of Debussy’s Préludes, describing them as “four different ways of looking at the same thing, although all are in some way elusive, almost as if what is being looked at is seen out of the corner of the eye.” But the four movements also reflected the styles of four different composers, also hinted at rather than explicitly stated. The opening Distant waltz was no more a straightforward dance movement than Ravel’s La valse, but there was an affinity with the impressionist distillation of the waltz that one finds in that piece. Similarly the Past march reflected Matthews’s work on the orchestration of Mahler, with more than a hint of the shadowy scherzo from the Seventh Symphony; and the following Present recitative recalled both Tippett’s music for string orchestra and (in the baleful open strings of the double basses) the prelude to Act Three of Tristan. This movement was for strings only; but the linked final Future movement brought the whole of the large orchestra back into play, although it was not until the final bars that the treatment of the instruments rose above chamber-like scoring, with generally quite a small noise emerging from the large body of players. None of the movements outstayed their welcome, but they remain miniatures rather than displaying any obvious links with each other.

Britten’s Clarinet Concerto was one of the versatile Benny Goodman commissions, but unlike Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto it was never completed. Britten left only a sketch for the first movement before he consigned what he had written to his bottom drawer in 1941, and Colin Matthews’s orchestration of this sketch didn’t sound very much like Britten’s scoring of that period. The use of tuned percussion in particular recalled the composer’s style of the 1960s rather than the 1940s. Moreover the repetitive nature of some of the passage-work for the solo clarinet may explain why Britten proceeded no further with the score; one suspects he may have amended this substantially if he had done so. The heavy scoring, with four horns and a full complement of brass, tended to overwhelm the soloist; and the use of the orchestral bass clarinet in the final bars of the movement also sounded rather odd, leading to a rather inconclusive ending.

For the second movement Colin Matthews orchestrated Britten’s Mazurka elegiaca for two pianos, but his assignment of the melody to the trumpet at one point sounded vulgar in a way that recalled Britten’s deliberately satirical use of the same device in Flute’s aria in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and the high writing for the clarinet soloist was merely uncomfortable. Even the rich violin passages in the middle section sounded most un-concerto- like, as if the orchestra were happy to be free of their pure role of accompaniment. The duet of clarinet and flute in the outer sections also robbed the soloist of prominence. However the quiet violin harmonies at the end were very beautiful, although throughout the clarinet part was largely tangential if not peripheral.

The finale was drawn by Matthews from an untitled sketch of Britten’s for a projected Sonata for orchestra, but it sounded much more like a concerto even if it was occasionally over-scored. Again the high passages for the clarinet were shrill, although the orchestration sounded much more like Britten’s 1940s style with echoes of the Sinfonia da Requiem and the Sea interludes. This sketch was the most enjoyable of the three movements, a piece far too good to be left to moulder in the drawer. Robert Plane did the best he could with what sounded like a sometimes ungrateful solo part.

Charlie Piper’s Twittering machine written in 2008 did just what it said on the tin, with many subtle and not-so-subtle echoes of Bartók’s Music for strings, percussion and celesta and Messiaen’s Turangalila. But one looked in vain for any sustained lyricism, or indeed for any sustained notes at all. The result was a piece of driving mechanical rhythm, an orchestral tour de force with elements of a percussion concerto (Neil Percy playing in counterpoint to the orchestral players). After some five minutes sustained dark chords began to underpin the continuing percussive material, but it was only towards the end that a sense of stillness finally emerged; and the music seemed to run down with a sense of icy chill that evoked the ice fall in Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia antartica.

The orchestra had played very well in the earlier items, but they reserved their real display of mastery for the final Elgar. François-Xavier Roth had conducted Nimrod as part of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, but this was the first time he had essayed the whole score. The split of the violins to left and right helped to clarify and elucidate Elgar’s textures, and Roth conveyed a sense of affection that owed not a little to the excellent example of Barbirolli. He kept the pauses between the variations to a minimum, to the advantage of the unity of the work; and he moved the sometimes tiresome Winifred Norbury along briskly, with the result that the link into Nimrod became a thrilling moment of sudden stillness. At the end of a superbly inflected Nimrod he made a longer pause than usual, but even this could not make the following intermezzo representing Dorabella turn the wretched girl into any less of a simpering ninny. In the penultimate Romanza variation Elgar instructs the timpanist to play with side drum sticks to imitate the sound of a ship’s engines, but here the player Steve Barnard appeared to simply reverse the usual timpani sticks; while Elgar himself prescribed the atmospheric tradition of using two large old pennies on the head of the drum – although these may no longer be so readily available. The finale under Roth bubbled with life, and the use of Elgar’s optional organ part in the closing bars brought a marvellous frisson.

As is usual with these BBC concerts, listeners can access the performances on the i-player for seven days.


Paul Corfield Godfrey