Read Tobias Fischer’s insightful review of Matthew’s 2004 debut solo album Merula.
It has almost become a general consensus that classical and contemporary repertoire need to be treated fundamentally different. “Merula”, however, works exactly because it defies the dogma. For his debut album, Matthew McAllister has taken the liberty of showing his abilties within the most diverse contexts, of organising a time-travel package through the ages and of recording his own interpretations of “a choice selection of classic guitar repertoire, alongside newer styles of contemporary guitar music.” Even more significantly, he has allowed in an element, which has strangely been forgotten in the debate on historical practise: Empathy.
Already in our “15 Questions” with the Glasgownian, he emphasised personal emotions as the basis for his performance: “Hopefully at the core of every musician and performer is a real childlike excitement about music and an uncontrollable desire to play and perform music.” But it works the other way round as well. Just as much as they are historical figures caught in the templates of their times, classical composers are human beings with a set of desires which has survived through the centuries, existing beyond short-term trends and fads. McCallister doesn’t leave out the social connotations or musicological implications - but his interpretations do allow for the possibility that the motivations for writing music were not that different for John Dowland, whose consoling “Frog Galliard” opens the program of seventeen short pieces, and Douglas Whates, who was born more than 400 years later. Which is why the track “Diferencias sobre, guardame las vacas” by early 16th century master Luys de Narváez sounds remarkably fresh and why Andrew York’s “Sunburst”, written very much in the present, has a “classic” feeling to it: “Merula” doesn’t corner anything or anyone, it refuses to see the chronological distance between the works as a conflict. With all of his renditions, McAllister arrives in the here and now and avoids the immanent danger of playing a cliche. Slowly but surely, he builds his set from the early beginnings and uses a dark and determined version of Albeniz’ “Asturias” as a transition point: After the stillstand of the middle section, the main motive rises from silence like a phoenix from the ashes and sends the music soaring to the 21st century and Ralph Towner’s brittle musical scenes.
It is not even that everything melts into a single uniform entity. Each track can be appreciated on its own and has retained its unique character. But if you close your eyes and leave the liner notes of the disc aside for a moment, you will find that each of the pieces still speaks to you with the same intensity and the same concreteness. Just like the instrumentalists performing their pieces, composers are no robots. That is no new conclusion by any means. But by feeling with them, instead of thinking about them, Matthew McAllister has awarded great depth to his repertoire – both the “old” and the “new”.