Saturday, 8 November 2014

As we approach Remembrance Sunday Hallé have released recordings in extremely fine performances of choral works by Colin Matthews that look unflinchingly into the face of the horror of war

With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War falling this year there have been a number of recordings released of works relating to the war. As we approach Remembrance Sunday Hallé have released a new disc of recordings of three works by British composer Colin Matthews (b.1946) www.colinmatthews.net/testsite/index.html


CD HLL 7358

Two of the works here, Aftertones and No Man’s Land look war and its appalling consequences directly in the face. The two works frame a shorter piece for unaccompanied chorus, Crossing the Alps.

This new disc features the Hallé Orchestra www.halle.co.uk and Choir www.halle.co.uk/halle-choir.aspx  conducted by Nicholas Collon www.nicholascollon.co.uk 
the Hallé Youth Choir www.halle.co.uk/halle-youth-choir.aspx  conducted by Richard Wilberforce http://richardwilberforce.com with Roderick Williams (baritone) www.ingpen.co.uk/artist/roderick-williams  and Ian Bostridge (tenor) www.askonasholt.co.uk/artists/singers/tenor/ian-bostridge

Colin Matthews was born in London and studied at the Universities of Nottingham and Sussex. With his brother, David, he subsequently worked with Britten in Aldeburgh and collaborated with Deryck Cooke on the performing version of Mahler's Tenth Symphony. From 1992-9 he was Associate Composer with the London Symphony Orchestra, writing amongst other works a Cello Concerto for Rostropovich. His compositions include choral and vocal works, orchestral, chamber, instrumental and piano as well as pieces for brass and wind band.

Aftertones (1999-2000) is a setting of poems by Edmund Blunden (1896-1974) in three sections, the first evoking a bleak war torn landscape, the second described by Matthews as a Dance of Death and the third where Blunden recalls a childhood pastoral landscape that slowly turns into a nightmarish vision.

Estrangement brings a dramatic opening for orchestra before the chorus joins. There is an icy melancholy as they sing, ‘Dim through cloud vails the moonlight trembles down a cold grey vapour on the huddling town…’ Colin Matthews’ finely drawn orchestral dissonances add to the feeling of desolation. The chorus bring moments of extreme sensitivity; finely controlled dynamics as the music rises and falls, rising at ‘In the false moonlight wails my old despair…’ and reaching a pitch at ‘A hounded kern in this grim No Man’s Land’ before slightly easing before a dramatic coda. The Halle Choir are superb, well prepared for this performance by their Associate Director Frances Cooke. 

Aftermath brings an anxious and fast moving orchestral passage before the choir enters with ‘Swift away the century flies…’  The music falls quieter at the words ‘Time has healed the wound, they say…’ with scurrying orchestral accompaniment maintaining the anxious and dramatic effect. The music hovers between hushed and furious as the choir sing, ‘But no, this fiction died before the swirling gloom…’ with both choir and orchestra bursting out passionately. A tense momentum is developed as the choir reach the words ‘ Where once the gladdening green hill towered’ before bursting out with ‘It shone a second, then the greed of death had fouled it’ before falling to a quiet end.

A string dominated Interlude precedes the third and final section, passionate with harp phrases and deep resonant strings over which the upper strings intone their heartfelt theme before quietening and leading gently and sadly to the conclusion.

An undulating orchestral opening creates a strange atmosphere for Childhood Beliefs out of which baritone, Roderick Williams enters with ‘There the puddled lonely lane, lost among the red swamp sallows…’. For all its restraint, this is possibly the most evocative section of the work. Roderick Williams is superb, following every little twist and turn of the writing, with subtle dynamics and fine colouring of words and phrases. This is a superb setting. The chorus enters on ‘Stones could talk together then, jewels lay for hoes to find…’ with a beautiful orchestral backcloth as though swirling mists are enveloping the memories spoken of. Williams returns for ‘Trees on hill-tops then were Palms…’ rising in drama before tailing off at ‘…white seraphin leaned to watch us…’ The chorus then rejoins, rising to a dramatic pitch at ‘While the flaming spires fell down’.  All come together in the dramatic ‘Half in glory, half in fear…’ bringing a chilled peak at ‘Crying Armageddon near’ before the orchestra brings a reflective, melancholy hush. The chorus quietly enters to repeat ‘How shall I return and how look once more on these old places!’ leading to a hushed end.

This is a quite phenomenally affecting work that received an extremely fine performance from Roderick Williams and the Hallé Orchestra and Choir conducted by Nicholas Collon.

Crossing the Alps (2009) is a setting from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Book VI and is written for unaccompanied choir with optional organ. Conductor Richard Wilberforce, opts for the use of the subtle pedal line to accompany the Hallé Youth Choir. The choir enter with each section slowly joining over a deep pedal note on the repeated word, ‘Imagination’ before moving forward in this lovely setting, freely tonal and subtly dissonant. This choir are terrific bringing lovely harmonies and colours to the often exquisite part writing such as at the words ‘Is with infinitude…’ where the choir swirl creating the feeling of infinity, subtly pointed up by the organ. The music rises to a climax at the coda.

In his excellent booklet notes, Colin Matthews draws our attention to the part of the text where Wordsworth speaks of ‘Our destiny, our nature, and our home, Is with infinitude, and only there.’ thus raising our human condition from the horrors that are revealed in the surrounding works.

No Man’s Land (2011) is in two parts and is a setting of words by Christopher Reid to an original concept by the composer. The characters featured are a Captain (tenor, Ian Bostridge) and a Sergeant (baritone, Roderick Williams) the former more reflective and the later more down to earth. The Hallé Orchestra is again conducted by Nicholas Collon.

Part 1 opens with a low orchestral chord before the sound of an old upright piano is heard, soon interrupted by the orchestra as an expectant feeling is created, giving way to a lighter tune from the piano. Ian Bostridge enters on the words ‘There are two skeletons -’ interrupted by Roderick Williams ‘We are two skeletons –‘Bostridge continues with ‘two skeletons hanging on wire in no man’s land.’ The strings of the orchestra add a strange and unearthly quality at the words ‘we both stand unburied and unresurrected.’ Both soloists bring a stark feeling, yet blend well together. Matthews’ orchestration is superb, subtly shifting harmonies creating an unreal atmosphere.

Ian Bostridge brings a stark intensity to such moments as ‘ancient tress somersaulted and broke their backs…’ The piano adds a series of scales before accompanying Williams in a music hall style of song ‘An old crow settled on an observation tree…’ When Bostridge suddenly enters with ‘Snug in my dug-out’ the emotional contrast is palpable, full of angst and horror singing ‘I can barely smother a disgusted shudder.’

A muffled band introduces ‘I’ll tell you something Sergeant Slack…the tunes that march men off to war are not the same as march them back’ before accompanying Williams in a macabre setting that includes the words ‘being packed off home with both legs gone…’ to a jolly march soon subdued by the Captain ‘Thank you sergeant, that’s enough…’. But the Sergeant sings ‘Fritz is my friend when I lob a grenade over the top he lobs one back…’ again with a satirical edge.

Strange strings introduce a sad theme for Bostridge to sing ‘Someone takes up his mouth-organ and starts to breathe an old tune into it…’ It is this juxtaposition that is so telling. The orchestra leads us to the end of Part 1.

A solo violin opens Part 2 as Ian Bostridge enters with ‘I know a village some way away where there’s a little estaminet…’ soon joined by Roderick Williams as the two speak of the activities of the soldiers outside of the trenches, yet with a strange melancholy. The piano enters again to accompany Williams in ‘I was sharing a smoke with the quarter bloke, when a lump of lead took most of his head’ to a light-hearted tune that touches creating a macabre feeling. When Williams arrives at the words ‘when a five-nine shell nobbled him as well…’ there is a sudden drama in the orchestral section before the quietly dramatic ‘Now when I suggest cards, my mates run yards and I have to play patience.’  This is terrific writing, full of horror and darkness behind the apparent light-heartedness.

The Captain then recalls a dream where ‘two generals passed by…don’t worry about this insignificant lot…they’re just a company that HQ forgot…’. a biting indictment of war. The sergeant sings a more eloquent song ‘I went to sleep in a bath and the bath was dirty…so I lay in the freezing mud…’ a gentle, beautifully eloquent, yet appallingly poignant setting to which the Captain joins.  

A solo violin and drum join as the Captain sings ‘They are drunken –‘ with the Sergeant commenting ‘but not with wine –‘ The Captain continues with ‘They stagger –‘ the Sergeant replies ‘but not with strong drink’ in this fine a duet, before an old record is played, an upbeat melody with the words ‘So come and join the forces’ over which can be heard the hushed voices of the two soloists before a tam-tam brings a hushed end.

No Man’s Land is a remarkable work that, in its passion, drama and beauty as well as its stark, satirical view of war looks unflinchingly into the face of horror.

All these works receive extremely fine performance as well as first rate recordings. There are excellent notes from the composer and full English texts.

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