BBC Proms 2011 (Concert Review - The Evening Standard, 2011)

It was Richard Hickox who, with a characteristically ebullient phone call in 2008, just three days before his untimely death, commissioned Colin Matthews's latest piece from him.

The work, No Man's Land, was written in his memory and given its world premiere by Hickox's old orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia, under Stephen Layton.

But it was also the death of one of the composer's grandfathers on the Somme that inspired him to ask poet Christopher Reid to provide a text on a First World War theme. The result inhabits terrain familiar from Britten's War Requiem, with a pair of soldiers, Captain Gifford and Sergeant Slack, sung admirably by Ian Bostridge and Roderick Williams, musing on their wretched existence in the trenches and on the enemy, Fritz, but with a black humour foreign to Wilfred Owen.

Behind the War Requiem lurk other ghosts: that of Mahler, whose incursions of popular music are echoed by Matthews, but also the Kurt Weill of Mahagonny in the use of a honky-tonk to accompany parodies of pub songs. But Matthews ventures even further into this, for him, new territory, with recordings integrated into his score. The fusion is achieved subtly, muted brass joining in imperceptibly. The very end devastatingly incorporates a rendering by Edna Thornton of "Oh! we don't want to lose you", exhorting men of valour to sign up for king and country.

No such postmodern irony in Mozart's Requiem: rather an unblinking confrontation with death and the hereafter. Layton, not only an accomplished conductor but one of the finest choral trainers in the land, brought in, alongside a strong team of soloists headed by Emma Bell, his vocal group Polyphony, who deployed explosive consonants and meticulous ensemble to thrilling effect.

Reviewed by Barry Millington
The Evening Standard


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