In June, Claire Booth and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under Oliver Knussen premiered an intriguing new work for medium voice and ensemble by Colin Matthews. Spleen: A Land of Rain sets 10 of Nicholas Moore’s eccentric translations of the same Charles Baudelaire poem ‘Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux’.
Mostly written under pseudonyms for a competition in the Sunday Times, the eccentric poems embrace a vast stylistic diversity – sometimes serious, more often parodistic – an approach which Matthews has mirrored in his settings. Whilst the more light-hearted songs recall something like the madcap energy of William Walton’s Façade, the overriding mood is of a deep and listless ennui. After a brief ‘Envoi’, the work ends with the Baudelaire poem in French, set in the style of Duparc or perhaps Chausson. When this too evaporates, leaving just a spectral piano accompaniment, it feels like we have been transported back to a Parisian salon. Capricious, incisive and unruly, Spleen: A Land of Rain is also a fascinating meditation on the inexact nature of translation.
Those looking to further explore Colin Matthews the ironist may be interested in his pugnacious Hidden Variables from 1989. A 13-minute work available in versions for orchestra and 14-player ensemble, it comprises a series of wicked vignettes on minimalist composers from Louis Andriessen to Philip Glass which are pitted against more chromatic and congested material.