A Bad Night in Los Angeles. Piano music of Robert Matthew-Walker. Mark Bebbington. © 2023 SOMM Recordings

CD Spotlight

An Intriguing Snapshot

KEITH BRAMICH listens to piano music by Robert Matthew-Walker

'Mark Bebbington ... is exemplary here, bringing out all the contrasts and mood changes ...'


Robert Matthew-Walker (born in London in 1939) is one of those larger-than-life characters who seems to have done everything, met everyone and appeared everywhere. This might seem a rather fanciful statement, but about twenty years ago (or so), when I had more time to attend concerts in London, either representing Basil Ramsey and this online magazine, or drawn by curiosity to hear new works or concerts given by people I knew, Bob M-W seemed to always be in the audience, and would always be holding court afterwards, at the reception, or in a nearby drinking establishment. It seemed that everyone knew him, and that he always had fascinating stories to tell. I imagine that this still happens today, and in fact the last time I reviewed a live London concert, just over three years ago - the English Symphony Orchestra at King's Place - Bob was there, at the reception, and we had a chat.

Naively, I had assumed that Bob's sphere of influence was London-based, but looking through the CD booklet for A Bad Night in Los Angeles, I found that Bob had studied composition with Darius Milhaud in Paris and I discovered a photo of Bob in his early thirties, looking rather different, sporting long hair and a moustache, who had just happened to drop in on Leonard Bernstein's birthday party in the USA.

I mention all this partly just to own up to the fact that I'm writing about the music of someone I know, and to admit that what I say could be biased, but also to observe that, when writing about such an influential person, other reviewers will most likely also find it difficult to be objective. This is one of the reasons why it can be so difficult, generally, to write in a neutral way about the creations of living people.

Having said all this, I've just listened to the nocturne Reflection at Midnight - the first track of Mark Bebbington's excellent disc of Bob's music for SOMM Recordings - and this is the first time I've heard anything written by him. Sensitive, quiet and rather spectral-sounding, my first reaction is that this is an impressionistic miniature, slightly improvisatory in feel, but carefully crafted by someone who really knows what he's doing.

Listen — Robert Matthew-Walker: Reflection at Midnight (Nocturne and Aubade)
(SOMM 0662 track 1, 0:02-1:02) ℗ 2023 SOMM Recordings :

Next there's a very short, percussive, fanfare-like Toccata on three notes, presumably greeting the following morning, although Bob's notes state that these two pieces for the left hand were written several years apart.

Matthew-Walker's jazzy Three American Pictures are snapshots of USA scenes - Break Dancing at Washington Square, At Gershwin's Grave and A Bad Night in Los Angeles. In typical Bob fashion, there's a story associated with this last movement, described in detail in the CD notes.

Listen — Robert Matthew-Walker: A Bad Night in Los Angeles
(Three American Pictures)
(SOMM 0662 track 5, 4:29-5:22) ℗ 2023 SOMM Recordings :

These are followed by an extended and mostly rather solemn Adagio in B minor called The Evening of Memory, named after a phrase used by American general Douglas MacArthur when he spoke about his hopes for peace. Read the CD notes for another fascinating Bob Matthew-Walker account of this work, involving his own military service and appearance in a film.

The music mentioned so far has been written recently, between 2015 and 2021, but the next three works are all from the 1980s, starting with Battledore - five extremely short and simple but descriptive pieces written for performance by Bob's friend's young daughter. Each tiny snapshot - March, Swings, Running About, Boats Across the Lake and Follow-my-leader - plays for less than a minute.

Bob's powerful and dramatic Piano Sonata No 3 (Fantasy-Sonata: Hamlet), written in 1980, is the longest piece on the disc.

Listen — Robert Matthew-Walker: Fantasy-Sonata: Hamlet
(SOMM 0662 track 12, 7:33-8:18) ℗ 2023 SOMM Recordings :

It's in one movement, consisting of an introduction and five sections, and ends, according to Bob's detailed and interesting liner notes, 'with the faintest hint of an unanswered question'.

Mark Bebbington (born 1972), the pianist on this recording, is exemplary here, bringing out all the contrasts and mood changes of this shifting score.

For Bob's Divertimento on a Theme of Mozart, Bebbington is joined by the young Nigerian/Romanian pianist Rebeca Omordia, to give Mozart's Sonata in F, K 533 a rather cheeky treatment, injected with a series of disparate fragments of melody, ranging from Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to Good King Wenceslas and jazz.

Listen — Robert Matthew-Walker: Divertimento on a Theme of Mozart
(SOMM 0662 track 13, 1:41-2:20) ℗ 2023 SOMM Recordings :

When I saw that Bob had written a Fantasy on a Theme from Malcolm Arnold, and coming straight after the jaunty Mozart Divertimento, I was expecting to hear some kind of jolly variations on themes from Malcolm Arnold's Beckus the Dandipratt or Tam O'Shanter, but in fact Bob gives Arnold the B-A-C-H or D-S-C-H type treatment by extracting the musical letters from the name (m)A(l)C(olm) A(rnol)D to produce the thematic motif A-C-A-D. At the very end of this serious work, after re-stating the motif, Bob cleverly contracts it into A-C#, which seems to leave us hanging, as if on a stronger question mark than at the end of the Fantasy Sonata.

Listen — Robert Matthew-Walker: Fantasy on a Theme from Malcolm Arnold
(SOMM 0662 track 14, 5:55-6:49) ℗ 2023 SOMM Recordings :

Perhaps someone now needs to construct a work from the motif (ro)BE(rt m)A(th)E(w-w)A(lk)E(r)? In fact, come to think of it ...

Listen — Keith Bramich: Romp on a theme from Robert Matthew-Walker
(computer realisation) ℗ 2023 Keith Bramich :

The disc ends with The Fields are White Already (2015-21) - a 'contemplation for solo piano in memoriam John McCabe'. British composer and pianist John McCabe left us in 2015, and Bob, who like many of us, knew McCabe and know his wife Monica well, has paid tribute with this very pianistic thirteen minute work - reflective and thoughtful but also bright and shimmering. The name is taken from a Bible quotation.

Listen — Robert Matthew-Walker: The Fields are White Already
(SOMM 0662 track 15, 12:02-12:58) ℗ 2023 SOMM Recordings :

Mark Bebbington has given us an intriguing snapshot of Robert Matthew-Walker's varied output, which also includes six symphonies, symphonic variations, concertos, four string quartets, plus some intriguing works which also show Bob's interest in rock music.

Listening to this disc also makes me wonder what else there might have already been in Bob's composition catalogue if he hadn't spent so much of his working life running the classical departments of CBS and RCA Records, founding record companies and working as a record producer, magazine editor, author, broadcaster and journalist.

Copyright © 4 May 2023 Keith Bramich,
London, UK



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