Sunday night’s Prom brought the world première of a new work from Faber’s finest, Colin Matthews: No Man’s Land for tenor and baritone soli and orchestra. Commissioned by Richard Hickox immediately prior to his death in 2008, it was presented by the orchestra Hickox himself formed 40 years ago, the City of London Sinfonia, directed by Stephen Layton, with soloists Ian Bostridge and Roderick Williams. Matthews’ text is by Christopher Reid, recounting an exchange between the ghosts of two soldiers, Captain Gifford and Sergeant Slack, whose bodies hang on barbed wire in no man’s land.
On the one hand, being charitable, perhaps the context was inopportune, coming as it did just a couple of days after Sir Harrison Birtwistle‘s brilliant Angel Fighter (also a work featuring two vocal soloists). But that can only go so far to mitigate the dreadful way with which this piece comports itself; far from striking the dignified stance that Matthews presumably intended, it was instead slowly unveiled as a ramshackle, shoddily stitched together patchwork of wafer-thin attempts at evocation. We’re fortunate—no, we’re blessed—in recent times to have seen the slow, steady rise of hauntology, a unique kind of musical aesthetic that can powerfully reach into the past and reflect it back at us with genuine sincerity and authenticity, stained and sullied (as it must be) by the gulf that separates then from now, and by our increasingly tenuous grasp on increasingly distant things. But what Matthews gives us in No Man’s Land is little more than a contrived collection of pastiche confectionary, coloured so as to appear moderately grim and stone-faced.
There are moments that suggest a music of greater power is crying to get out; Gifford’s first passage of lyricism (“Before divine creation”), breaking vigorously free from the foregoing turgidity, is a really striking moment, as is the brief but effective imitation of the sounds of a mouth-organ a little over halfway through. The episode that follows this is particularly rich, surpassed only by the splendid aside towards the end, abruptly curtailing Slack’s line “And I have to play patience—”, where the strings embark on a distressed interlude that enters a genuinely moving place. But one clutches at straws to find occasions like these among the insufferable parade of period allusions Matthews clearly hopes will lend some kind of ‘authenticity’ to the language of this piece (Anthony Burton disgraces himself in the programme note by name-checking Mahler in this regard). Even worse, though, are the intrusions into the musical fabric of period recordings, occurring at several points and, despite Matthews’ earnest efforts at integration, remaining aloof and distant from the rest of the proceedings. One ends up wishing that Slack would just shut the hell up and allow Gifford’s more meaningful material room to expand; even when, towards the end, Matthews seemingly gives Slack something more honest (“I went to bed in a bath”), far from proving emotive, the result simply comes across as a lame lytdybr litany, a dull catalogue of unengaging (and possibly spurious) memories. Throughout No Man’s Land Matthews too often mistakes being ponderous for being portentous, and he’s only fortunate that a work so utterly festooned with attempts to latch onto something significant from the past doesn’t end up sounding, at best, funny, or at worst, downright insulting.