For its 50th birthday tribute at the Wigmore Hall on Monday night, the Nash Ensemble wisely refrained from touching lightly on all these areas of achievement, choosing to play instead a single piece, The Great Journey, which in its variety, depth and ease of invention suggests the key reflexes of Matthews's musical constitution. By way of build-up, the evening opened with Happy Returns, a short and bubbly fraternal greeting that led to wider celebrations from the composer's extended family of colleagues and admirers, of whom the conductor and composer Oliver Knussen must be primus inter pares.
His Ophelia Dances, prismatic and nimble as Matthews's own creations, yet setting its qualities to different ends, were ably conducted by Lionel Friend. Memorable solos from horn and cor anglais served as reminders that the players themselves are no less important in the ranks of friendship.
By way of diversion, pianist Ian Brown, guest leader Mayumi Seiler and cellist Christopher van Kampen gave a brisk and sinewy reading of a classic score that is forever modern: Ravel's Piano Trio. A Nash Ensemble standard, it was played more or less to perfection.
And so to the Journey itself, in length a whole second half, and in breadth the size of a continent. In deciding to set the story of conquistador Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's Florida shipwreck and eight-year journey to the coast of Mexico, Matthews was influenced by many things: the parabolic nature of the tale, for example, in which the brutality of the Christian conquerors contrasts with the native Indians' kindness and touching belief in their bearded visitor's divinity; also its epic nature, combining joy and suffering in harsh extremes.
Given such narrative power, it was, perhaps, the sheer suggestiveness of the music that proved the most impressive feature for those knowing Matthews chiefly from his orchestral essays. True, the familiar driving discourse of his style stood for the tortuous rhythm of the expedition, rendered as chamber symphony in four substantial movements. Yet, beyond its pulsations, the horror and pageantry of the text were expressed in finely drawn sonorities that implied another and less often heard domain of feeling and atmosphere.
As Cabeza de Vaca himself, the baritone David Wilson-Johnson was both master of the rhetoric, and sensitive interpreter of the lyrical reflections. He is, after all, one of our most distinguished singers, a fact that told in the final, pay-off line, its dramatic irony as freshly and pungently delivered as the solid opening narration some 50 minutes earlier.Reuse content