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William MATHIAS (1934 -1992)
Piano Sonata No.1 Op. 23 (1963) [15:03]
Piano Sonata No.2 Op.46 (1969) [14:32]
John PICKARD (b. 1963)
A Starlit Dome (1995) [10:45]
Piano Sonata (1987) [24:58]
Raymond Clarke, piano
Recorded in Djanogly Recital Hall, Nottingham University, 5-6 January 1998

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I have always been an enthusiast of William Mathias’s music ever since I heard the organ piece ‘Jubilate’ played in Llandudno’s Ebenezer Methodist Church over thirty years ago. Of course back in those days there was little available on LP. However there was an edition of the complete organ works which I listened to often, lent to a friend and subsequently lost. There were also a few orchestral works on a number of compilations.  It was not until Nimbus issued the three Symphonies that I heard a major work. And of course the Lyrita CDs available from Harold Moore’s Records add considerably to the Mathias catalogue. However I had never heard the Piano Sonatas until this present review copy landed on my doorstep. 

Apparently, although Mathias was an excellent pianist he did not compose much for the piano (for this purpose we will not include the three concertos!) I have been unable to see a complete works list, so I do not know what other pieces are hidden in the detail. However, according to the programme notes there are only four pieces – the two sonatas given here and a couple of miniatures.  Which leads me to my one and only criticism of this CD. It last a good 66 minutes, but surely the producers could have squeezed these ‘minor’ works on to give us a complete review of the composer’s piano repertoire.  

William Mathias’s Sonata No. 1 was composed in 1963. The model for this work is usually regarded as Michael Tippett’s Second Sonata (1962); however there is no question of cribbing or pastiche. This is very much Mathias’s own music. The programme notes quote the musicologist Malcolm Boyd saying that this is ‘a work of tremendous power and sinew – one of the most masculine of all Mathias’s pieces.’ He goes on to add that the contrast between the aggressive energy of the first and third movement and the dreamy rhapsodising of the central one ‘illustrates the two facets of Mathias’s dual musical personality – the fervent Welshman and the urbane cosmopolitan.’ It is this contrast which makes the piece for me. The closing pages refer back to the opening and provide the unity of purpose which makes this an extremely convincing work. A fine addition to the superb (but largely unknown) corpus of British Piano Sonatas. 

The Second Sonata is composed in the Lisztian model of a single movement. The idea being that the traditional exposition, development and recapitulation of classical sonata form are largely equated with the equally classical three movements.  Mathias writes a slow-fast–slow structure that allows the opening theme to be restated in the closing pages. There has been criticism that this work alludes to harmonic language of Messiaen. But the reality is that this is a work of its time. Any references to the French composer (or anyone else) are incidental. This is very much Mathias’s own music and as such it is a masterpiece. One only has to think back to the late sixties and early seventies to think of some of the stuff that passed as music to thank goodness that Mathias wrote in an approachable, if somewhat challenging style. This music, like much of Messiaen, is timeless. There can be no better recommendation. 

By Mr John Pickard’s own words his Piano Sonata is overtly political. It was composed in 1987 as an ‘attempt to give voice to my fury’ against Margaret Thatcher. Yet the main problem it causes is that it ‘dates’ the work and ties it to a particular milieu. If I was Pickard I would be inclined to dump the ‘programme’ and allow people to judge this work as absolute music.  If we are allowed to do this we find that this is actually a fine example of late 20th century piano music that beats much of the opposition for technical difficulty, interest and sheer power and energy.  The work is conveniently divided into two parts – the first being predominantly slow and the second fast.  Part 2 is slightly shorter in length and is a concatenation of three toccatas. Much use is made of ostinato motifs and complex technical figurations. The work finishes in a blaze of colour in A major. Perhaps, as a pendant to this work, Pickard ought to write a piece praising the achievements of Gordon, Tony and New Labour? 

A Starlit Dome is a completely different kettle of fish. This work was written in response to a commission from the Criccieth Festival in 1995. Pickard writes, rather glibly in his programme notes that the quotation from W. B. Yeats’ Byzantium sums ups the essence of the Universe:-

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains

All that man is

All mere complexities.

The fury and the mire of human veins.  

Would that 4000 years of cosmological effort had found it so easy! The music is a ‘nocturne’ although rather different to Field or Chopin! It is a particularly beautiful work that displays a confident but restrained pianistic writing.  Once again the programme notes elaborate a metaphysical ‘programme’ for this work that would be better forgotten. However, a very attractive piece, that deserves to be played. 

I must confess I had not heard of Raymond Clarke. And this I find surprising when one considers his sheer ability as proved on this disc.  A look at the record catalogue shows that he has been quite busy – he has some 10 CDs to his credit. These include some major contributions to 20th century music. This includes the complete piano works of Havergal Brian and Robert Simpson, recordings of essential works by Copland and Szymanowski and Andrzej Panufnik.  On the concert circuit he has been active in Wales with a performance of the rarely heard Hoddinott First Piano Concerto. He commissioned the fine 10th Piano Sonata from this composer. 

The playing is stunning on this present CD. None of these works are easy – in fact they are all virtuosic pieces. There is no doubt that this repertoire is totally agreeable to Raymond Clarke. He plays this music with sympathy and technical aplomb. 

This is an important contribution to 20th century British Music. The Mathias sonatas are stunning examples of the genre and deserve a solid place in the repertoire.  

John France 

see also Review and Article on Mathias by David Wright



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