Colin Matthews's extraordinary Proms premiere

Colin Matthews's extraordinary Proms premiere
Echoes of the First World War filled the Royal Albert Hall on 21 August with the premiere of Colin Matthews’s dazzlingly inventive and moving work, No Man’s Land. Set to a text by Christopher Reid, this extraordinarily imaginative piece uses the quiet bowing of a cymbal to frame a vivid evocation of the many facets of war: grim black humour, desperation, patriotic songs on a honky-tonk piano and orchestral tuttis which ricocheted around the hall.
 
Scored for orchestra and two vocal soloists (at the premiere, Ian Bostridge and Roderick Williams), the twenty-five minute work had its origins in a phone call from Richard Hickox in November 2008, sadly just three days before he died. Hickox asked if Matthews would write a piece for the BBC Proms to celebrate the City of London Sinfonia’s 40th birthday. Although Hickox was very much missed at the premiere, conductor Stephen Layton was able to step into his shoes for a first rate performance that had the audience (and critics) cheering for more.
 
No Man's Land is a memorial to the losses of the first world war, of which Matthews's grandfather was a casualty. It sets a poetic sequence by Christopher Reid, in which two skeletons, hanging on the wire between the opposing armies, converse and ponder their experiences…. Reid creates a reflective, darkly humorous and occasionally shocking mini-drama out of this situation, yet the result feels understated, as well as setting well to music. Matthews has provided a strikingly atmospheric score, regularly drawing on the idioms (and sometimes the actual recordings) of marches and sentimental songs of the period in an approach that recalls Mahler's use of similar material to equally ironic effect. The final impression is of a subject drawing something powerfully distinctive from Matthews in its alternation of detached emotional observation and compassion.
Guardian (George Hall), 22 August 2011

…it was the death of one of the composer's grandfathers on the Somme that inspired him to ask poet Christopher Reid to provide a text on a First World War theme. The result inhabits terrain familiar from Britten's War Requiem, with a pair of soldiers, Captain Gifford and Sergeant Slack, sung admirably by Ian Bostridge and Roderick Williams, musing on their wretched existence in the trenches and on the enemy, Fritz, but with a black humour foreign to Wilfred Owen.
 
Behind the War Requiem lurk other ghosts: that of Mahler, whose incursions of popular music are echoed by Matthews, but also the Kurt Weill of Mahagonny in the use of a honky-tonk to accompany parodies of pub songs. But Matthews ventures even further into this, for him, new territory, with recordings integrated into his score. The fusion is achieved subtly, muted brass joining in imperceptibly. The very end devastatingly incorporates a rendering by Edna Thornton of "Oh! we don't want to lose you", exhorting men of valour to sign up for king and country.
Evening Standard (Barry Millington), 22 August 2011
 
The ghosts of two dead soldiers, hanging limp from barbed wire in the no man’s land between the trenches, voice their experiences of the war through a solo tenor and baritone, tellingly projected here by Bostridge and Roderick Williams. The music at the outset conjures up evanescent images that take shape as the piece progresses.
Matthews deploys sounds redolent of his subject, be it an out-of-tune piano or the gallows humour of wartime ballads, and he even calls on period recordings of marches and of Edna Thornton singing the patriotic song Your King & Country Need You from 1915.
Enhancing the music’s poignancy, these facets are woven in to the fabric of a piece that is imagined with a sure dramatic touch and a deeply affecting compassion.
The Telegraph (Geoffrey Norris), 22 August 2011
 
Commissioned by the late Richard Hickox, Colin Matthews's No Man's Land was performed by the excellent City of London Sinfonia, rigorously conducted by Stephen Layton. The text, by poet Christopher Reid, and with echoes of Wilfred Owen's "Strange Meeting", records a conversation between the ghosts of two soldiers in no man's land. Intercut with honky-tonk piano and snatches of authentic, crackly gramophone records, the orchestra's misty, sustained lines are coloured by multiply divided strings. Matthews's delicate, elegiac score is heard as if through a thick white gauze suffused with the scents and sounds of memory.
The Observer (Fiona Maddocks), 28 August 2011
 
A memorial to the composer's grandfather, killed at the Somme, this 20-minute oratorio stages a dialogue between the ghosts of two dead soldiers whose corpses are strung up on the barbed wire of no man's land.Combining live orchestral textures (including an out-of-tune upright piano "of the kind that might have found its way to the Western Front") with recorded military marches and popular songs of the day, Matthews's music mirrors the fragmented rag-bag of images, the "memories and scraps of song and wisps of rhyme" that make up Christopher Reid's poem… It is perhaps the piece's other speaker, Roderick Williams's Cockney Sergeant Slack who emerges most poignantly, the jarring optimism of his bar ballads tarnished by cynical shrugs of orchestration - a lurking string pedal point, a dark chord in the low woodwind.
New Statesman (Alexandra Coghlan), 24 August 2011
 
A feeling of remembrance is everywhere in this piece, not least because it so strongly recalls Britten’s War Requiem with its two soldiers walking “friendly up to Death”. There are echoes of Berg and Mahler, too, as Matthews brings in a honky-tonk piano and parodies of popular songs… Tenor Ian Bostridge and baritone Roderick Williams made the most of Matthews’s graceful vocal writing and the City of London Sinfonia under Stephen Layton relished the atmospheric accompaniment.
Financial Times (Richard Fairman), 23 August 2011
 
A recording of the performance is still available to hear for a few days more on BBC iPlayer.