Denis Matthews memories

CHRISTOPHER MORLEY SHARES FOND MEMORIES OF ONE OF THIS COUNTRY'S GREATEST PIANISTS, BORN A HUNDRED YEARS AGO.


MEMORIES OF DENIS MATTHEWS
by Christopher Morley
I first became aware of Denis Matthews while I was still a sixth-former,in the mid-1960s, studying for Music 'S'-level Mozart's D minor Piano Concerto, K466. In a welcoming record basement in my Brighton home town I found a budget-price LP of that concerto, coupled with Mozart's C minor Piano Concerto K 491 on the Vanguard label (the sleeves striped in blue and white, rather like my beloved Brighton and Hove Albion). Denis Matthews was the soloist, with Hans Swarowsky conducting the Vienna State Opera Orchestra.
That LP became a constant occupant of the turntable of my Dansette portable record-player, and helped me achieve that meaningless qualification.
My next encounter with Denis was when I went to stay with a friend I'd made during a music course in Salzburg in 1965. Peter played me a stunning EP of the Beethoven Horn Sonata, played by the lamented Dennis Brain -- and accompanied by Denis Matthews. Later that evening we were sped through the Surrey lanes in a nifty little sports car propelled by Peter's brother, James Hunt, who later became somewhat famous for similar feats.
And it is a sports car which figures in a charming story about Denis Matthews, as recounted in Beresford King-Smith's book Crescendo!, published to mark the 75th anniversary of the CBSO in 1995. The CBSO had an engagement in London, and its then conductor, the charismatic George Weldon, offered the soloist, Denis Matthews, a lift down from Birmingham.
Denis was so terrified by Weldon's daredevil driving that he decided to take the train back home after the concert. And when he arrived at the then wonderful Birmingham Snow Hill station, there was Weldon in his purring car waiting to meet him.
Very much later I was persuaded to serve as a steward at the Birmingham Competitive Music Festival, and Denis was the adjucator. At the end of a long evening we moved from the Birmingham and Midland Institute in Margaret Street to the much-missed Grapevine in Paradise Forum, where Denis lit his famous pipe.
As we yarned over drinks, I told him about that precious Mozart LP. "We recorded the whole thing in three hours," he replied."Half-hour run-through, half-hour recording, half-hour listen-through and patching for each one."
Soon he became a customer in the music shop I hamfistedly ran in Moseley (though I did sell scores to John Joubert and Peter Donohoe, and an emergency baton to Simon Rattle) for a while.
After Denis' tragic death, his widow Beryl Chempin offered me his mortarboard from his days as Professor of Music at Newcastle University, and which I still cherish. It is huge! What an intellect must have been crammed within that cranium.
And now I'm listening to a CD transfer of that precious LP, and am marvelling at the eloquence of every note Matthews plays, and the empathy between him and Swarowsky and the brilliantly on-form Vienna State Opera Orchestra (Vienna Philharmonic wearing other hats).
The cadenzas in the Mozart C minor are Matthews' own, brilliantly crafted, but the cadenzas in the D minor are by Beethoven (himself a performer in this tempestuous concerto), and they are probably the greatest cadenzas written in homage to another composer -- though Joachim's for the Beethoven Violin Concerto come pretty close.

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