A CD containing two contrasting works: Colin Matthews’ Alphabicycle Order, along with his Horn Concerto, has just been released on the Hallé Orchestra’s own label, earning the BBC Radio 3 Disc of the Week.
The two pieces contained on this collection could hardly be more different: composed for children’s choir, orchestra and narrator (renowned actor Henry Goodman on this latest recording), Alphabicycle Order is a setting of nonsensical children’s poems in which inventive wordplay is used as a vehicle with which to traverse the entire alphabet; whilst the Horn Concerto, composed for virtuoso soloist Richard Watkins, is a dark and magisterial piece that explores the full range of sonorities offered by the French horn.
Matthews’ musical abilities in two completely different genres are strikingly displayed. Gramophone praised the collection as ‘…two excellent recordings of notably substantial 21st-century compositions’ while, according to the BBC website’s review of the release, ‘as a showcase for [Matthews’] and the [Hallé's] stylistic versatility, the two works on this disc… couldn't be bettered.’ (A copy of this review can be found here.)
In performance, both pieces have been acclaimed by critics:
‘…[The Horn Concerto] is a ruminative, but lucidly shaped, discourse with the soloist first among equals in a thoughtfully soloistic deployment of the orchestra.’
Classical Source (Richard Whitehouse), 24 April 2001
‘…the associations were of romantic “waldhorns”, mysterious nocturnal forests, shadows and muted scurryings in some secret world of the imagination. Not that there weren’t dramatic moments, notably the striking opening with a distant off stage horn section out of which the soloist emerged, first sonically, then physically. On a first hearing this delightful piece seemed to conceal hidden depths.’
The Independent (Laurence Hughes), 25 April 2001
Horn players should now gravitate towards this work as an excellent vehicle for virtuosic and emotive playing.
‘Brilliantly diverse in its musical language, sympathetic to the wit and wisdom of Reid’s texts and superbly well set for young voices, Alphabicycle Order is a textbook example of how to write for diverse forces in a meaningful, inclusive yet unmistakeably individual way.’
Gig (Paul Cutts), 17-30 July 2007
‘Matthews’ suite is an ABC of nonsense in which he creates individual sound worlds to describe cluck-work chickens or the topography of Eyeland (a country entirely surrounded by see). Some are narrated by actor Henry Goodman, others become miniature choral epics for the excellent youth choir, which enthusiastically participates in a climactic triple-forte scored for party poppers.’
Guardian Unlimited (Alfred Hickling), 13 July 2007
Alphabicycle Order was performed again on Thursday 29 January at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, to rapturous reviews:
‘After that, a return visit to Alphabicycle Order of 2007, Colin Matthews's joyful song cycle, a Hallé commission setting A-Z nonsense rhymes from the children's book by Christopher Reid and Sara Fanelli. Serious contemporary composers don't often write pieces that could be labelled “fun for all the family”, but Matthews succeeded in spades, and without sacrificing musical integrity.
With their milky voices, noise-makers and balloons, the newly formed Hallé Children's Choir palpably relished singing and speaking Reid's odes to creatures that Edward Lear somehow missed, from the alphabike to the zagzig. Fanelli's witty illustrations, projected above the orchestra's heads, added to the fun. John Tomlinson had a great time too, inflecting the narrator's part with a range of expression and sonorous bass beauty quite beyond the norm. The whole thing was so pleasurable it was almost sinful.’
The Times (Geoff Brown), 2 February 2009
This witty and original piece offers young singers a unique opportunity to experience professional orchestral accompaniment in a contemporary setting.