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William MATHIAS (1934-1992)
Let the people praise thee, O God, Op.87 (1981) [5:15]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, Op.53 (1970) [7:32]
A Babe is Born, Op.55 (1971) [3:30]
In excelsis gloria (1954, revised 1991) [2:23]
Processional (organ solo) (1964) [3:19]
Missa brevis, op. 64 (1973) [19:07]
Ave verum corpus (1992) [4:29]
Carillon (organ solo) (1989) [6:15]
All wisdom is from the Lord, Op.88 No.3 (1962) [6:19]
Lift up your heads, O ye gates, op.44 No.2 (1969) [2:12]
O nata lux, No.3 from Rex gloriae, Op.83 (1980) [2:05]
Festival Te Deum, Op.28 (1964) [7:13]
O be joyful in the Lord (Jubilate Deo), Op.90 No.2 (1983) [4:40]
Jonathan Vaughn (organ)
Wells Cathedral Choir/Matthew Owens
rec. 21-22 May, 4-5 June 2008, Wells Cathedral, Somerset
HYPERION CDA67740 [75:32]
Experience Classicsonline

The work of William Mathias ranges across many genres - it includes three symphonies, three piano concertos, concertos for violin, harpsichord, harp, oboe, clarinet and organ and a variety of orchestral dances; one opera (The Servants of 1981 - which has a libretto by no less than Iris Murdoch); three string quartets and a number of other chamber works; a considerable body of music for organ. But it is, above all, as a composer of choral music that his powers of invention and the sheer quality of his craftsmanship are consistently heard at their very best - though I would also make a claim for the rarely-heard string quartets.

Wells Cathedral Choir and organist Jonathan Vaughn - under the direction of Matthew Owens - do something like full justice to this aspect of Mathias’s work on this excellent CD. The choir sing with sensitivity and energy throughout, with a variety of colour and texture, with a wholly engaging balance between polish and expressiveness; what the words mean seem to matter to this choir and its director at just as much as beauty of sound - something that can’t be said for every choir in the English cathedral tradition. Jonathan Vaughn shows himself, once again, to be both a highly shrewd accompanist and well able, as a soloist, to handle - though the feet are relevant here too! - the cross-rhythms of Processional or the wit of Carillon, playing the Cathedral’s rebuilt Willis organ. The work of Matthew Owens is everywhere intelligent and assured.

As the fine booklet notes by Roderic Dunnett suggest, Mathias’s music was a fusion of many passions and influences - particularly important amongst them being Benjamin Britten, tempered, as it were, by a knowledgeable fondness for the medieval and for modern French music - but the outcome was distinctively individual. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Missa Brevis of 1973, written for St. Matthew’s Northampton. There are passages of remarkable beauty and profundity here, not least in the Kyrie with its dark, introspective tension, in the restrained ebullience of the Sanctus, where the writing counterpoints organ and voices to striking effect, and in the Agnus Dei, rapt and delicate, utterly persuasive in its spirituality. In musical architecture, in responsiveness to text and in emotional substance the Missa Brevis is a masterpiece of modern British church music and it gets, here, a performance that does it justice.

The variety of Mathias’s choral writing is made very clear if, by the side of the weight of the Missa Brevis, one puts carols such as A Babe is Born and In excelsis Gloria, both of which have their roots in the medieval, without ever sounding merely archaic or nostalgic for earlier musical languages. Mathias can also do the grand public statement - as is well exemplified in the openness and accessibility of Let the people praise thee, O God, written for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

In short, wherever one turns on this CD one encounters music of real sophistication - but it is always a sophistication of technique and invention in the service of ends greater than itself, in the service of text and occasion, emotion and spirit.

Glyn Pursglove 

 


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