Colin Matthews on British Music (Proms 2005 – Week 4)

Written by: Colin Anderson

Colin Matthews has added Pluto to Holst’s The Planets. He discusses this along with Vaughan Williams and Tippett, and there’s also Matthews’s ongoing orchestrations of Debussy’s Préludes, some now out on CD…

A Proms concert of British music is hardly a rarity, but the one this Monday, August 8, covers virtually the last century. Favourite pieces of Vaughan Williams (Tallis Fantasia) and Holst (The Planets) frame Tippett’s 1950s’ Piano Concerto. The most recent music is Colin Matthews’s Pluto. I ask Colin if either Holst or Vaughan Williams has influenced him. “Holst has always meant more to me than Vaughan Williams, of whom I am only really attracted to the fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies, although I do have a very soft spot for the Tallis Fantasia, which is a special piece and a remarkable early achievement from a composer who, like Holst, was something of a late starter. Because The Planets is much better known than any other work of Holst’s it tends to be seen as a one-off, but it is a typically individual work from a fascinatingly idiosyncratic composer. I know The Planets inside out, having prepared an edition of it with Holst’s daughter Imogen, but I’m not aware of any influence it’s had on my own music, Pluto apart!”

Pluto is a fine piece (and recorded on Hyperion and Naxos) but I wonder if there was a moral dilemma adding to Holst’s original? “I feel rather ambiguous about Pluto! In the first place it wasn’t my idea, and my arm had to be twisted somewhat. But once I’d decided to do it, it seemed obvious that writing pastiche Holst would be completely pointless and I wasn’t going to pretend that I was in the position of Holst after Pluto’s discovery in 1930; at the same time I couldn’t be uninfluenced by The Planets and had to write something that would fit. I certainly don’t think of Pluto as a fixture, and have sympathy with those who would rather it weren’t there; but I’m delighted that it’s had over 50 performances in 5 years. When the planetoid Sedna was discovered last year I was asked if I was going to add another movement: the answer is a firm no! But Simon Rattle has commissioned a set of asteroids for Berlin next March, including from Saariaho and Turnage, to be performed together with Pluto!”

Mention of Rattle cues his new EMI CD (5580452) of Debussy, which includes a selection from Colin’s orchestrations of Debussy’s Préludes. “I’m no pianist but have always taken great pleasure in playing through the Préludes. Orchestrating them, with 19 down and 5 to go, is a wonderful way of getting inside the mind of another composer, although I haven’t tried specifically to emulate Debussy’s orchestral writing – rather as with Pluto, I’ve wanted to find my own way into the music.”

That leaves Michael Tippett. At the Prom it’s his Piano Concerto with Steven Osborne as soloist, a noted Tippett exponent (and hopefully recording this work for Hyperion?). I ask Colin Matthews about the Piano Concerto and Tippett himself. “Although Tippett pointed to Beethoven as a model, the fourth piano concerto in particular, to me it’s so much the essential Tippett that I can’t find much Beethoven in it at all. It comes out of the magical world of The Midsummer Marriage and is full of the opera’s sweeping lyricism – the wonderfully long-limbed opening melody is one of Tippett’s best inspirations. I suppose that it’s rarely heard because it’s so difficult to play, but his music has gone into a surprising decline since his death, which I feel will be reversed by the centenary. The works up to The Vision of St Augustine are very important to me; I grew up with them. The later music I find difficult and lacking the intensity of the earlier works – to me it’s almost as if he’d found a way to compose which made it easier for him: previously it had always been a struggle, which is what makes the music so compelling.”

Conducting the Prom is Martyn Brabbins. “I’ve worked a lot with Martyn and have huge admiration for him and his ability both in the standard repertoire and new music, to which he is totally committed. I wish there were more conductors like him!”

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