Sunday, 18 December 2011

William Mathias & Vaughan William: Piano Concertos

William MATHIAS (1934-1992)
Piano Concerto No.1 (1955) Piano Concerto No.2 (1961) Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Fantasy for piano and orchestra (1896-1904)
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Ulster Orchestra/George Vass
SOMM CD246

I first came across Ralph Vaughan Williams ‘Fantasia’ for piano and orchestra whilst carefully studying the 1996 imprint of Michael Kennedy’s invaluable ‘A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams.’ It was one of many pieces that were hidden from view and were likely to remain so due to an embargo on works that the composer had withdrawn or laid aside around the end of the Great War. These included The Rape or Prosperine, the Heroic Elegy, the Bucolic Suite and the present Fantasia (Fantasy). They were works that I imagined I would never hear. Fortunately Ursula Vaughan Williams lifted the embargo and in recent years a number of these compositions have been recorded. Each time I have listened to one of these re-discovered pieces I have felt that the musical world has been cheated of a great piece of music for such a long time. This is the case with the present Fantasy. It may not be one of the composer’s masterpieces, but it is certainly a work with which the listener can do business.

This twenty-one minute score was originally begun in October 1896 and was finally completed on February 9 1902. It was subsequently revised in 1904. Since then it has lain in the British Library. This Fantasy (Kennedy refers to Fantasia) is regarded as a ‘student’ piece by critics, however it must be realised that R.V.W. continued study until relatively late in life. His sojourn with Ravel was during 1907/08 when the composer was thirty-five years old! The present work was begun when he was 24 years old and finished when he was 32. So it is hardly a neophyte’s ‘prentice piece.

For many listeners R.V.W. is not normally associated with the pianoforte. To be true he made use of it his Double Concerto and in Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune. Both of these works have their enthusiasts and have been reappraised in recent years. However, there are only a handful of solo piano works, not a few of which are arrangements of other works or are teaching pieces.

The form of the Fantasy is in one movement of six sections with an overall structure of slow-fast-slow. Without perusing the score it is hard to say how idiomatic the solo part is: how well it fits under the pianist’s hands. However the impression is that it has all the hallmarks of a ‘romantic concerto.’
Many listeners will play ‘spot the influence’. And it is not hard to hear all sorts of things going on in this work. Certainly Brahms and Grieg are never too far from the second section. Rob Barnett at MusicWeb International has identified a mood of orthodox chant: I felt that Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was recalled. Liszt is amongst the exemplars. However, this is no stitching together of other composer’s music. Vaughan Williams has created a valid work that reflects the times in which it was written and possibly the fact that he had studied with Stanford and latterly Max Bruch. Finally, there are moments when the ‘real’ RVW stands revealed and we hear intimations of Job (is it my imagination?) and the later Symphonies. It is this, more than anything that makes the Fantasy such an important work to have on disc.

William Mathias has been reasonably well-served with recordings. Just a quick glance at the Arkiv catalogue reveals some 77 discs dedicated to, or featuring music by, the composer. However there are a number of critical works missing from these listings. For example I believe that there is no recording of the Concerto for Orchestra, Litanies and the Holiday Overture. The present CD fills in an important gap with the early Piano Concerto No.1 which dates from 1955 and the Second Concerto from some five years later. Lyrita have already presented the Third Concerto on SRCD325.
Dr Rhiannon Mathias has noted that her father ‘always held a fascination’ for the concerto form. Apart from the piano concertos, there are ‘one each for flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, horn, organ, harp and harpsichord’ in the composer’s catalogue as well as a couple of early concertos written when in his teens.
The Piano Concerto No.1 seems to me a very confident and well-wrought work for a nineteen year old student at Aberystwyth University, although it is in no way precocious. Apparently, the work seriously impressed Edmund Rubbra, who was the external examiner. The work was premiered in London on 19 May 1957. After a few more performances it was withdrawn.
The concerto is written three well-balanced movements. The Guardian critic of this present CD rightly points out that this work is ‘angular’ in its effect. However this is not the whole story: the slow movement contains ‘nocturnal’ music that is particularly reflective and beautiful. However, much of the concerto does nod to Bartok and Prokofiev although this is presented with many of the fingerprints that were to dominate much of Mathias music over the next thirty-five years. For example, we hear sharp harmonies and syncopated rhythmic figures and the playing of the main themes together rather than separately. The piano part has been described as ‘exhilarating’ and this mood is well reflected in Mark Bebbington’s interpretation of the work. The score for this recording was prepared and edited by Dr Rhiannon Mathias.

From the ‘cool’ opening bars of the Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 13 we are in a different world to the earlier piece. This is a lyrical work that is suffused with poetry. Much of the opening movement is reflective and perhaps even tentative in its exploration of the two main themes. However there are moments of tension and even angst in these pages.
Mathias has added a ‘scherzo’ in all but name. In fact, it is presented as a ‘danse infernale’ which promotes music of ‘ferocious energy’ that utilises ‘brittle and rhythmically alert’ themes and harmonies. This is in complete contrast to the typically gentle first movement.
The ‘lento’ is the heart of the work and has an improvisatory feel to much of the proceedings. That said there is a structure to this movement that references a theme from the first movement, and gradually leads the music to a ‘nobilmente’ climax before a brief link passage leads to the concluding ‘rondo.’ This is Mathias dance-music at its best: from the initial solo piano statement of the main theme to the concluding riot of sound this music impresses. The composer makes use of themes from earlier movements and this gives the ‘rondo’ a sense of unity and purpose.
This is a work that is difficult to tie down for influences: I have detected Malcolm Arnold and Michael Tippett, but the truth is that this is William Mathias’ own unique sound-world at its best. It is hard to see why this concerto is not so much more popular and regularly played.
The work was commissioned by the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain, and was duly given its first performance at the 1961 Llandaff Festival.

It almost goes without saying that Mark Bebbington’s playing is superb throughout the entire disc. Bebbington has done so much for British music in recent years, with his cycles of music by John Ireland and Frank Bridge, the Dale and Hurlstone Sonatas and the Fergusson and Bax piano concertos. In the present disc the playing of these three very different works call for a wide range of interpretation and technical styles. These have been dealt with admirably and suggest a huge sympathy towards, and understanding of, these works.
As usual with SOMM recordings, everything is ‘done decently and in order:’ the sound reproduction is first calls, the cover painting by James Hamilton Hay (1874-1916), the sleeve notes, the background preparation of the scores by Dr Graham Parlett and Dr Rhiannon Mathias. It all adds up to an excellent production.

It seems redundant to say that I recommend this CD! Every R.V.W. enthusiast will demand a copy for the World Premiere Recording of the Fantasy.  I guess that fewer listeners will be Mathias fans (however, they ought to be!) but these two works, again premiere recordings, are important additions to the catalogue of British (Welsh) piano concertos. For fans of William Mathias they are essential: for newcomers to his music they are a fine introduction to a great composer who has a style that is largely all his own.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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