CD review – Guitarist Matthew Marshall’s “Brighter than Blue’ contains rich and varied rewards

Music by Philip Norman, Anthony Ritchie and Kenneth Young

Matthew Marshall (guitar)

with Carol Hohauser (flute)
Heleen du Plessis (‘cello)
Tessa Petersen (violin)
Sir Jon Trimmer (reciter)
Dame Kate Harcourt (reciter)


Guitarist Matthew Marshall conceived the idea for this beautifully-presented 2020 RATTLE CD album as long ago as 2016 – and for some reason and another it’s taken me as long (2024) to find the opportunity to write something about it. What gave my own inclinations the impetus needed was the most recent of a series of heartfelt public tributes prompted by the untimely death (October 2023) of dance legend Sir Jon Trimmer, who had been associated with Marshall in one of the works on this recording as a reciter of Alastair Campbell’s poetry. Marshall had spoken and performed at each of the two tribute events to Sir Jon I had attended, and had, at the most recent one (organised by the distinguished dance critic Jennifer Shennan) drawn particular attention to the great man’s willingness to participate in different artistic activities with the same commitment and attention to detail as he had to dancing.

Marshall also attributed his own varied collaborations with the different artists on this recording to Trimmer’s example, with the latter’s suggestion resulting in the work by Philip Norman on the disc – It’s Love, Isn’t It?, which was first performed in Dunedin in 2017 with Sir Jon and actress Tina Retgien reading certain of both Alistair and Meg Campbell’s poems. The work is one of a number of works commissioned by Marshall from various composers, and all here are world premiere recordings.

The CD begins with an earlier work, Tense Melodies (1981, rev.2016) for flute and guitar by Philip Norman, featuring Marshall duetting with flutist Carol Hohauser. There are six pieces, originally written by Norman as incidental music for two Christchurch theatrical productions during the early 1980s. It’s interesting to learn that the first four of these are drawn from from incidental music for a 1980 Court Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, while the fifth is an adaptation of a song from a 1981 production of Ken Hudson’s play for the Canterbury Children’s Theatre, The Revenge of Badsky. The final piece was intended as a “rounding off” piece for the set’s publication that year, one re-evoking the “tense” aspect of the title as referring more throughout to a juxtaposition of past and future, rather than any “highly strung” mood. The set was first performed in 1995 by Marshall and Hohauser on a national Chamber Music NZ tour, and then revised in 2016 in preparation for this recording.

The opening track “Piangevole” has an engaging, plaintive-sounding “Once upon a time” feel to its brief, if sombre storybook manner, the recording beautifully realising the characteristic sound-quality of both instruments. The following folk-like “Cantabile” deliciously animates the line with its rhythmic “snap” evoking a highland kind of feeling, one which the third piece “Tempo rubato” straightaway dispels with the guitar’s jarring opening notes and the flute’s anguished rejoiner, the two continuing a strained, canonic sequence of confrontation and avoidance which ends in what seems like a kind of impasse, the guitar finishing with a quixotic “have it your way” spread chord that dissolves into silence. Whatever one makes of the following “Animato”, the piece balances both delight and determination with a spirited dance, the instrumental lines leaping between harmony and discord in suggestive rather than combatative ways. There’s something French-sounding about the “Dolento” which follows, a dignified processional whose feeling hints at its purpose without actually stating it, and certainly avoiding resolution. And the final, whirlwind “Con Moto” has a breathless delight whose angularities send one’s senses home afterwards wondering whether it had all been a kind of fevered dream – it’s all certainly a set of pieces to enjoy as much in unfettered surrender as delight in curiosity.

Anthony Ritchie’s piece Autumn Moods which follows adjusts the listener’s focus towards a different time and place, with a kind of elemental earth-awakening from pulsating cello tones, which are then joined with chiming guitar notes – how gently and beautifully the cello’s dark cantabile line rises from the gloom and engages the guitar in winsome responses. Impulsively the guitar initiates movement, gracefully bearing the cello’s supple line on its back as the music moves through the different autumnal shades of light and gloom, the music’s flow strengthening and quickening as the two instrumental voices intertwine and reach an expressive climax – from this both of the voices wend their way back through their newly-discovered soundscapes musing contentedly over their journeyings together.

Having enjoyed the ready bonhomie displayed between different instrumental voices in the first two items, I found Kenneth Young’s 1978 Suite in three movements for violin and guitar something of a different proposition. The first piece began with a thoughtful, largely pensive “Andante moderato” whose opening was dominated by the guitar, and with Tessa Petersen’s violin something of a “shadowy presence” up until the instrument seemed to “find its voice’ with an expressive mid-movement outburst of feeling. The violin seemed then to re-enter its “world of shadows’’, the music returning to the “Andante moderato” guitar-dominated mood, the violin diffidently repeating a brief and sombre four-note phrase which we’d previously heard before the instrument’s “big moment”……a bleak and insistent Adagio follows, one whose remorseless intensities don’t let up, even across a kind of interlude in which the place we’ve been taken to by the music gives little joy, and despairingly rebegins the opening trudge to its end.

The final movement, Moderato sostenuto, offers little relief from the gloom, the violin line bringing to mind for me a child’s loneliness in an orphanage, wanting to make sense of his or her isolation and craving any kind of quasi-parental warmth. So, a challenging piece, one which I found at first hearing difficult to like – it took my sensibilites into increasingly cheerless vistas from the second movement onwards, the music’s rhythmic shackles unrelieved by any feeling generated from the melodic content. Of course, having been an admirer of Kenneth Young’s work in the past I’m obviously determined to revisit these exacting pieces and give them another try – it won’t be the first time I’ve gone through such a process in my listening…..

Still, what a different world we seemed then to enter, as if rescued from these oppressive strains, by firstly, the sounds of a vast ocean doing its age-old thing, and then the brimful-warmth of the voices of, firstly, Sir Jon Trimmer and then Dame Kate Harcourt, bringing to flesh-and-blood life the first of Alistair and Meg Campbell’s poems that the two exchanged over years of marriage, fifteen of which Philip Norman had chosen to accompany in alternation with music, drawing his title It’s Love, Isn’t It? from the verses’ first publication in 2008.

Listening to those two beautifully-modulated and winningly-phrase voices picking their separate-but-together ways through the ups and downs of a marriage made for a heart-rending experience, here discreetly (and appropriately) flavoured by Philip Norman’s music, to which Matthew Marshall responds with playing of crystalline simplicity. The first poem “Wild Honey” here takes the verse from Alistair’s original “Wild Honey” about Meg (here delivered ardently by Jon Trimmer), and fuses it with one from the latter’s poetry (spoken more reflectively by Kate Harcourt) – words affirming in the former’s case a ”charged” lovemaking memory, and in the latter’s a life-long love. Philip Norman’s music makes much of simplicity, the emotion largely reflected in a kind of “impulsive tranquility.”

Throughout, there’s a chameleon-like response to the vagaries of emotion laid out by the various poems from both reciters, which the music mirrors, the latter rather more abstractly for the most part in a “variations on a theme” way – though I was especially taken by the play of surface ripples and darker undercurrents in pieces like “Brown Peahen”, “To Rid Myself of You”, and “To a Young Girl”, where the music in each case teases out the nooks and crannies of a relationship under stress – the “funkiness” of the music for “To a Young Girl”, for instance, presented for our edification an age-old stimulus, however illicit.

There’s also a mythic strand which occasionally vibrates in both words and music, in fairy-tale fashion in “The Way Back” which reworks the Hansel and Gretel story as a kind of deliverance of the boy from the temptations of the Witch; and in more dreamlike, chimerical fashion in “Gift of Dreams” there are fancies and imaginings of Nature bending to the human will in the music speaking as the natural world with its patterns and cadences.

Gathering these various fluctuations into almost metaphysical being is “A Confession”, where love in a youthful abstract is linked to an actual embodiment, an outpouring whose words echo John Donne’s “A Dream of Thee”, with the music’s beautiful, self-generating sense of that same eventual embodiment. The “Bee of Anger” which follows runs a gamut of a woman’s anger at her partner’s self-evident fantasies – the music here suitably tortured, twisted and self-inflicting – before turning inwards towards the following “Resistance”, in which a simple hibiscus flower re-ignites the power of love and its essential preservation, as represented by petals pressed into a book and their beauties  captured as an essence in the words “Love is not ending”. And, to conclude, there’s “Tidal”, a valediction by the poet for his wife, written and then given to the winds and the ocean to bear the words as nature might bear feelings of love – the music is also valedictory, rising at the end to hover, resonate and pass – very moving.

So, a recording to savour for a number of reasons – undoubtedly a heart-warming souvenir of two of New Zealand’s most distinguished performers in their fields coming together to make the creative word flesh in language terms – and thanks to the advocacy of one of the country’s most skilled musicians in collaboration with several equally talented colleagues, this Rattle disc has achieved a coup of both creative and recreative distinction – long may it continue to give the greatest of pleasure!



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