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William MATHIAS (1932-1992)
Intrada Op. 54 (1971)
Songs of William Blake Op. 82 (1979)
Horn Concerto Op. 93 (1984)
Threnos (1990)
Hobed o Hilion (1971)
Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone); David Pyatt (horn)
Welsh Chamber Orchestra/Anthony Hose
Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 11-12 April 2003. DDD
METRONOME MET CD 1066 [79:39]

It is now twelve years since William Mathias’s sudden and untimely death in 1992. The void that he left in Welsh music has yet to be filled. Indeed, the unending energy and enthusiasm he brought to Welsh musical life as composer, teacher and administrator will continue to be missed for many more years to come.

His extensive output, whilst better represented on disc than the work of many of his contemporaries, has suffered since the sad demise of Nimbus, a label that lent considerable support to his music. This new disc from Metronome is therefore most welcome, particularly in light of the fact that it introduces works new to the Mathias discography.

Mathias was no stranger to music of celebration (had he still been alive I have little doubt that he would have been the first choice for Master of the Queen’s Music in succession to Malcolm Williamson) and his Intrada for small orchestra is a good example of his ability to write appropriately for specific occasions. In this case the occasion was the 1971 opening of a range of new university buildings overlooking Cardigan Bay at Aberystwyth. Intrada is scored for a modest band of two oboes, two horns and strings and is a vigorous, life-affirming concert-opener that skilfully gathers in momentum before reaching a joyous conclusion capturing the peeling of bells in the horns.

For the Songs of William Blake, Mathias chose to employ a luminous ensemble of celesta, harp and piano to complement the strings. The vocal line was originally written for the contralto Helen Watts, who was forced to withdraw from the premiere in 1979 due to the wide tessitura demanded by Mathias’s vocal writing. At the time Alfreda Hodgson stepped into the breach although in 2002 Jeremy Huw Williams re-established the cycle utilising his own baritone voice. Whether Williams’ baritone "revealed a depth and richness in the music" hitherto untapped, as the booklet notes maintain, is perhaps open to opinion but what is undeniable is the sheer emotional range and sense of drama that Mathias packs into this substantial thirty minute song cycle. Mathias uses The Lamb and The Tyger at the centre of the cycle, framing the work with two slow songs, To Morning and To The Evening Star. The Tyger bristles with dark, declamatory fervour whilst To The Evening Star is set as a wonderfully atmospheric processional in epilogue. Despite the occasional hint of strain at the top of his register Williams makes a strong case for the work, which leaves a lasting impression and is certainly capable of holding its head up with the song cycles of Britten.

David Pyatt’s exceptional playing cannot be faulted in the Horn Concerto of 1984. Cast in four movements the longest of which is the affecting Nocturne, placed third, the piece is typically inventive Mathias, full of engaging melody and taut thematic control and development. The added dimension here is a prominent part for timpani which Mathias insisted were to be treated as the horn’s equal. These appear in all movements apart from the fleeting yet ebullient Scherzo.

Threnos is the latest of the works here recorded, dating from just two years before the composer’s death. It was written in response to a commission from the Lichfield Festival in tribute to their festival director Gordon Clarke, who had himself died suddenly. Mathias constructs a major single movement structure for strings of over eighteen minutes duration. The music explores a wide range of moods and sonorities that draw on diverse expressions of grief and emotion resulting from loss. The result is both impressively cohesive and deeply affecting being without doubt one of the most important works of Mathias’s latter years.

Brief though it is, the beautifully touching setting of the Welsh folk song Hobed o Hilion that ends the disc serves as both an encore and a musical epitaph to a composer for whom Wales was inseparable from his life and music. Jeremy Huw Williams once again sings with considerable sensitivity.

Although formed in 1986 by Anthony Hose, the conductor on this disc, this is the first commercial CD by the Welsh Chamber Orchestra. I hope it is the first of others for they clearly respond well to both the music and Hose’s direction. The comprehensive and informative booklet notes by Geraint Lewis are reproduced in both English and Welsh.

Christopher Thomas

see also William Mathias biography


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