Composer, arranger, administrator, mentor and cultural advocate: it can be difficult to decide where the emphasis lies when considering Colin Matthews (b1946), his contribution to British music across more than 40 years putting composers, musicians and listeners alike in his debt.
Matthews’s own music is notable for its diversity of content. Two of his earliest acknowledged works, the Fourth and Fifth Sonatas for Orchestra, meet the respective challenge of American minimalism and Mahlerian chromaticism head-on, their concern for evolving and integrating large-scale expressive contrast pursued in such impressive later pieces asCortège, Memorial, Reflected Images and Traces Remain. A productive relationship with the classical heritage is no less evident in his concertos for violin, cello and horn, along with a cycle of string quartets (five to date) spanning the greater part of his output. Vocal works include the dramatic cantataThe Great Journey, orchestral song-cycle Continuum and No Man’s Land, an arresting fusion of cantata and cabaret commemorating the First World War in provocative yet affecting terms.
This latter piece emerged out of Matthews’s decade as Associate Composer with the Hallé – most significant of several such posts that have also included the Philharmonia and London Symphony orchestras, and that also gave rise to acclaimed orchestrations of the 24 Préludes for piano by Debussy. These transcriptions and arrangements are no less central to his work: back in the early 1960s he orchestrated several Mahler songs in collaboration with his older brother David (himself a distinguished composer), and he has since arranged song-cycles by Debussy, Holst and Britten. Matthews worked as amanuensis to Britten during his last years, and those editorial activities have continued with realisations of several early or unfinished pieces, in the process making new orchestral and chamber works available for performance.
Mention should also be made of his involvement (alongside David) with Deryck Cooke on the latter’s performing edition of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, which has now received more than a dozen recordings and established itself as an integral part of the orchestral repertoire.
Matthews has long been active as administrator of the Holst Foundation. He is also chairman of the Britten Estate, as well as a trustee and Music Director of the Britten-Pears Foundation.
He served as a council member of the Aldeburgh Foundation for 11 years and has retained close links with the Aldeburgh Festival and the Britten-Pears School, not least as co-director (with Oliver Knussen) of the Contemporary Composition and Performance Course. He was a member of the council of the Society for the Promotion of New Music for over two decades, and director of the Performing Rights Society for three years. Since 1985 he has been a member of the music panel of the Radcliffe Trust and, since 2005, he has served as a council member of the Royal Philharmonic Society and Composition Director of the LSO’s Panufnik Scheme.
Matthews has often worked as a recording producer, not the least significant being Górecki’s Third Symphony with the London Sinfonietta, which topped classical charts on both sides of the Atlantic and has sold more than one million copies during the 25 years since it was issued.
It is as founder and executive producer of NMC Records that Matthews has made arguably his greatest contribution to the UK contemporary scene, and which has secured him this Special Achievement Award. From its modest beginnings in 1989 (the actual title is an acronym for New Music Cassettes), the label has built up a catalogue that currently amounts to 236 titles and which takes in a broad spectrum of British post-war music from senior composers such as Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Hugh Wood to rising stars such as Mark Simpson and Kate Whitley. Notable ‘firsts’ have included Anthony Payne’s realisation of the sketches for Elgar’s Third Symphony, an Archive series which comprises reissues of long-unavailable recordings of British music, an Ancora series featuring reissues from other labels and a Debut series that focuses on composers from the younger generation. The NMC label has also been involved with download and online formats with such projects as New Music 20x12, for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and New Music Biennial. Nine of its releases have won the Contemporary category of the Gramophone Awards over the past quarter-century.
Colin Matthews received an honorary doctorate from Nottingham University in 1998, was given the Royal Philharmonic Society/Performing Rights Society Leslie Boosey Award in 2005 and made an OBE in the 2011 New Year Honours for services to music. It is fitting he is being recognised with a Special Achievement Award at this year’s Gramophone Awards. Richard Whitehouse