William MATHIAS (1934-1992)
Piano Concerto No. 1, ed. Rhiannon Mathias and Geraint Lewis (1956?) [24:52]
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1959) [23:59]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1972-1958)
Fantasy for piano and orchestra, ed. Graham Parlett (1890s) [21:23]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Ulster Orchestra/George Vass
rec. 15-16 May 2011, Ulster Hall. DDD
SOMM SOMMCD 246 [70:46]

Welsh composer Mathias, unlike his contemporary compatriots, the dissonance-inclined Alun Hoddinott and the sometimes lower-key Daniel Jones, has done pretty well in the recording stakes. Decca, EMI, Chandos, Nimbus and Lyrita recorded his orchestral music but there is still plenty awaiting that privilege.

Brilliance of orchestration is part of the Mathias DNA. Even in the very welcome First Piano Concerto that glinting and eager joyous element is present with percussion benches providing the glisten and gleam. The writing suggests the influence of Prokofiev and Bartók; more the former. Like Hoddinott, though in a different manner, nocturnal enchantment is a strong if unassertive presence. The tonality is no more 'outlandish' than that of Prokofiev. Mathias is not exactly a lush romantic but the subtle Lento betrays some evidence in that direction. Typically Bebbington revels in the work's pyrotechnics as much as the poetic subtleties and sinister spells (III, 2:47). The recording is transparent in music that really demands transparency.

In the four movement Second Concerto Mathias explores a vein of feathery poetry. The first movement opens with glowing delicacy and melodic allure. Luminously chiming traceries and rhythmic resource are now well to the fore. The third movement Lento continues the elusive, regretful, almost tentative exploratory enchantment of its counterpart in the First Concerto. A steadily revealed dancing brightness is there recalling the lively writing in the Rubbra concerto.

We are learning more and more about RVW's prentice works courtesy of Chandos, Dutton and Hyperion. Here is another in the shape of his Fantasy, this time shot through with touches in which we can assess the noonday maturity of the composer. Alongside this there are other voices - slavonic orthodox chant (2:34) and a touch of epic Brahmsian heroic surge tirelessly rising (9:30) to meet Lisztian thunder (13:02). This is juxtaposed with hymnal fervour as heard in his celebratory version of The Old Hundredth and the Fantasia on the 104th. The epic and hymnal aspects meet in grandeur in the long peroration at 19:32 onwards.

Fingers crossed for more discoveries and revivals. So far as RVW is concerned there is the tone poem The Solent, the major Cambridge Mass recently revived and to be second performed on 22 October 2011 at Bath Abbey and perhaps a reconstruction/realisation of the Cello Concerto left incomplete or in shreds at the time of his death. To this might be added a speculative suite drawing on the remaining evidence of the opera project Tom The Rhymer. Nor should recording executives forget the short RVW work for cello and orchestra that was aired at the 2010 Proms.

Mathias, for all that he has done fairly well in discography terms, still has quite a few works waiting in the wings. These include Earth's Fire (a big work like This Worlde’s Joie) and the Violin Concerto.

This constantly revealing and pleasing CD is much more than a gap-filler … although it does fill gaps. Vass and Bebbington bring to their revivals a questing spirit. It will refuse to make routine out of the inspiration that rests even in works left in teenage tatters or forgotten or orphaned by their composers and certainly by the public and concert promoters.

These are discoveries but more to the point are rewarding revelations that beckon the listener to return.

Rob Barnett

Discoveries but more to the point rewarding revelations that beckon the listener to return.