Poetry of exile and paranoia lies behind As Time Returns, a new song cycle for baritone and ensemble of 12 players by Colin Matthews that was premiered in December by George Humphries and the London Sinfonietta under Jessica Cottis. The 20-minute setting of poems by Ivan Blatný was commissioned with funds from the Koussevitzky Foundation.
One of the leading Czech poets of his generation, Blatný defected to England in 1948, becoming a non-person in his own country – all references to him were expunged, and his poetry was black-listed. Life in exile was not easy – he suffered a mental breakdown soon after arrival, recovering sufficiently to work for a time as a journalist. From 1954 until shortly before his death he lived in mental institutions and care homes. ‘Blatný was not so much mentally ill as paranoid about being kidnapped and returned to Czechoslovakia’ says Matthews. ‘I have set poems from the 1940s in translation as well as some of his later poetry, much of it composed in English as well as in a polyglot mixture of English, Czech and German.’
Of all Matthews’s magnificent song cycles – and there are many – As Time Returns is by far the most operatic. It functions like a dramatic monodrama, with moments of biting, black irony contrasted with nostalgic, dream-like sections where Blatný remembers his past.