Colin Matthews

Friday, February 5, 2021 @ BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

Richard Blackford’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2014), for oboe and strings, kicked things off. The title owes to words included by Abraham Lincoln as part of his inaugural address of 1861. The music is initially lyrical and pastoral (Barber and Copland came briefly to mind), radiating a halo of optimism, before animation and impassioned statements take over, fading to a quotation of ‘Taps’ (a bugle call associated with US military funerals) while strings (consciously or not) recall the otherworldly central movement of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto. The oboe muses … soliloquises. It’s an engaging fifteen-minute piece. Steven Hudson (BBCNOW principal oboe) was as eloquent and as virtuosic as the solo part demands.

Benjamin Britten’s Opus One, his Sinfonietta, followed. Scored for ten instruments (wind and strings), this student piece is a precocious and individual work, written deftly: spiky and suggestive, colourful, timbre-conscious, edgily expressive in the middle movement, and rhythmically vital, Puck-like, in the Finale.

Then further Britten: Temporal Variations – 1936 oboe and piano (withdrawn after one performance and not published during the composer’s lifetime); 1994 arranged for oboe and strings by Colin Matthews; and here now the Variations in a saxophone version. It’s an exploratory work to begin with before contrasting commentaries come into play, the sax offering a slinky personality and suggesting a nightclub ambience. Jess Gillam was sensitive to the succeeding moods and the master of her instrument.

Finally, also from 1994, premiered by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Simon Rattle, Matthews’s own …through the glass (the title of which comes from an Edmund Blunden poem), a gripping score of charged emotions, stalking rhythms, rarefied reflection and a frosty conclusion – conflict apparent in the air – and using the biggest ensemble of this concert, including harp, piano and percussion. The close-on twenty minutes passed quickly due to the quality of Matthews’s invention and incident and through this impressive realisation by Martyn Brabbins and members of BBCNOW.