‘A fine and beautiful work.' The Sunday Telegraph
1.afl.2.2.bcl.2 - 4.2 fl.hn.0.2.1 - perc(2): vib/mar/glsp/tgl/siz.cym/tam-t/BD - harp - pno - strings (18 vln.12 vla.12 vlc. 6 db or 18 vln.12 vla.9 vlc. 6 db or 24 vln.12 vla.12.vlc.6 db)
Full score on sale 0-571-52430-3 and parts for hire
Piano reduction and solo part on special sale from the Hire Library
Composers who grew up in the second half of the 20th century had a lot of decisions to make. The musical tradition had been shredded, irretrievably it still seems, into a bundle of parallel strands, often with few points of contact between them. Born immediately after the end of World War II, Colin Matthews had to learn his trade, acquire his personal voice, in the middle of all that. He had read classics at university before switching to music, studying composition with Arnold Whittall and Nicholas Maw, and then taking an academic interest in Mahler: in the late 1960s and early '70s he worked with the late Deryck Cooke on the performing edition of the Tenth Symphony. Then another change of tack; a spell in Aldeburgh, assisting the ailing Benjamin Britten in the completion his final works, added another ingredient to the stylistic synthesis that he was busy formulating.
But Matthews' first major work, the Fourth Sonata for Orchestra (1975), shows that he had spread his net far wider still - there are clear debts to György Ligeti and to the early minimalists (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley) in its inventive textures, but long-limbed expressive melodies too, which might be traced back to the Austro-German tradition in which he had immersed himself so thoroughly. That work, in itself, was a statement of intent; a signal that Matthews was a composer who was never going to be dogmatic about his language, never likely to keep to a party line come what may, but would establish his personal voice using what he needed, from wherever it could be found. That might caricature him as a musical magpie, someone for whom style is a matter of expediency rather than conviction, but that would be totally wrong; Matthews' development in the quarter of a century since the Fourth Sonata has demonstrated that his language, for all its occasional plurality, has an integrity and structural strength that are utterly distinctive, and which has proved itself able to tackle compositional challenges in whatever form they have presented themselves.
By now Matthews has composed works in virtually all musical genres with the exception of music theatre. He has produced a vast range of ensemble and chamber pieces, as well as vocal settings; his most recent major work, Continuum (2000), is a large-scale setting for soprano and ensemble of poems by Montale and Rilke. But when writing for the orchestra he has regularly expressed a very personal voice, in which the ghosts of Mahler and his successors (especially Schoenberg and Berg) have lent a sharp expressive edge to his music, as in his very first essay in concerto form, the Cello Concerto No.1 of 1984. Writing a horn concerto, though, presented him with a very different challenge, and what he has produced, typically, is a very specific and honed response, which exploits the solo instrument's particular characteristics.
Matthews envisaged the mood of his new concerto, completed earlier this year, as fundamentally nocturnal; perhaps not necessarily as a dreamy nocturne as such, but as an exploration of a moonlight, dappled world, full of mysterious skitterings and romantic, yearning melodies of the kind that the horn of all instruments can present so well. The scoring for the work helps to create this enchanted world. The strings use mutes throughout much of the work, and are divided unconventionally; there are no first and second violins as such, but instead a body of instruments that is frequently subdivided (as are the violas, cellos and double basses) into two or more parts. There are no trumpets in the brass section, but a pair of the mellower flugelhorns instead, while the treatment of the horn section is distinctive, to say the least. The solo horn begins offstage, and progresses steadily across the platform during the course of the concerto, visually mapping out its structure - it takes centre stage, for instance, during the flickering scherzo that forms the heart of the work - until it delivers its final phrases, sinking to the lowest registers of the instrument, directly opposite the point at which it began.
The Sunday Telegraph (Michael Kennedy), 29 April 2001
‘The offstage horns launch a scherzo of typically Matthewsian fleetness, marked by crepuscular string writing and vehement interjections by the horn, now centre stage and often using ‘natural’ intonation. The climax comes with dramatic volleys from the offstage horns, suddenly visible on a balcony. One was left with a sense of the horns, both soloist and ensemble, as a kind of romantic or atavistic force that had passed right through the sophisticated modern(ist) orchestra, aided and abetted by the conductor … Matthews’ statement has a power and elegance that are quite his own.'
The Sunday Times (Paul Driver), 29 April 2001