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works that the composer had withdrawn or laid aside around the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 Garden of 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 9 February 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 RVW continued studying 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 RVW is not normally associated with the pianoforte.
To be true he made use of it in his Double Piano 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 Bartók 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
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
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’s 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 Ferguson 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, 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 RVW
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.
see also review by Rob