William MATHIAS (1934-1992)
Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 15 (1961) [15:28]
Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 94 (1983) [20:40]
Violin Sonata (1952) * [16:44]
Sara Trickey (violin); Iwan Llewellyn-Jones (piano)
rec. Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK, 18-20 August 2009
*World première recording
NAXOS 8.572292 [53:05]
Unfortunately there appears to be little biographical and analytical information about William Mathias. There is an expensive but out-of-date bio-bibliography, a short book by Malcolm Boyd that is now out of print and a four page article by Ian Parrott in the hard to find Anglo-Welsh Review. Apart from this everything would appear to be reviews or short studies in various journals about the organ music, the choral works and the vocal pieces. This is a pity, as most critics would regard Mathias as one of the top five Welsh composers of the twentieth century. For the record the other four are (probably) Alun Hoddinott, Grace Williams, Daniel Jones and the fifth is almost certainly a matter of preference.
However, Rob Barnett points out in his review of these Sonatas, that William Mathias has been ‘well treated’ on CD. The Arkiv website currently notes some 77 discs devoted to or containing his music. These span the entire range of his catalogue including the three symphonies, the great choral pieces This Worlde’s Joie and Lux Aeterna and a goodly selection of the fine organ works.
It is not necessary to provide a lengthy biography of William Mathias in this review, but a few biographical details may be of interest and remind the reader of the importance of this composer.
William Mathias was born in Whitland in Carmarthenshire on 1 November 1934. He studied at Aberystwyth University and later at the Royal Academy of Music. His teachers there were Sir Lennox Berkeley and Peter Katin. Much of his musical career was concerned with the academic world: he was a lecturer and then Professor of Music at Bangor University. Much time was spent organising the North Wales International Musical Festival, which was (and is) based at St Asaph. He was involved in such august bodies as the Welsh Arts Council and the BBC’s Central Music Advisory Panel. Mathias regularly played and conducted music at concerts. However he only really became ‘famous’ and a household name in 1981, when a specially commissioned anthem was heard in St Paul’s Cathedral at the wedding of HRH The Prince of Wales to the late Lady Diana Spencer on 29 July 1981. Mathias died at Menai Bridge on Anglesey on 29 July 1992.
The CD cover suggests that the Violin Sonata (1952) is a first performance. I have found a reference to the Op.15: it was released in 1976 on a record of chamber music by Argo (ZRG771). However, I have been unable to track down where the Op.94 was recorded. I have certainly never heard any of these works before.
The early Violin Sonata (1952) is a real treasure. To be sure, it is to a certain extent a ‘retro’ work with the composer writing in a highly charged romantic style that would have been largely anathema in the early ’fifties. Geraint Lewis suggest that this piece, written when the composer was eighteen years old. ‘represents a culmination of what he [Mathias] always referred to as his ‘juvenile’ phase.’ The work was first performed on 16 May 1953 with the violinist Edward Bor and the composer at the piano. However the performance history has not been straightforward. Mathias withdrew some two dozen ‘student’ works and these were not performed again. This included the Violin Sonata.
Towards the end of his life the composer did review his entire ‘compositional archive’ before it was prepared for presentation to the National Library of Wales. Some of the discarded works were singled out as possibilities for performance. However, Lewis assures us that the Violin Sonata was not amongst them. In 2008 representations were made to the composer’s estate and the present work was given a ‘trial run’ at the Wigmore Hall. All were agreed that the sonata is not representative of the composer’s work but it was felt that it was of ‘such astonishing power and originality as a self-taught pre-student work that it should be heard in that light’. It was duly ‘premiered’ at Galeri, Caernarfon on 2 July 2010.
The Sonata is in three well-balanced movements that are typically romantic in their outlook. Rob Barnett has noted that this sonata is in a trajectory from Howells, Ireland and Bax. I also agree with him that the sound-worlds of Cyril Scott and John Ireland permeate this work, however it never becomes pastiche.
I accept that this is not ‘typical’ Mathias - any more than most composers’ ‘early horrors’ are typical of their mature work. Yet this Sonata is excellent and enjoyable. Its parts are well balanced and the mood, whilst largely romantic is never kitsch. It is a work worthy of the composer and ought to be in the repertoire of many violinists.
The Violin Sonata No. 1 was the composer’s first commission for the Cheltenham Festival. It was given its first performance there on 12 July 1962. The violinist was Tessa Robbins and the pianist was Robin Wood. The work was well received by the critics; however there was a suggestion that the last movement, the Lento-Allegro Ritmico, did not fulfil the promise of the first two.
There is certainly urgency about this music which is clear from the very first downward phrase from the piano. This opening movement contrasts an angular theme with one that is considerably more ‘melodic and flowing’. This is reflective and moving music: however, it is cast away by the ‘spiky’ tune before coming to an aggressive and finally enigmatic conclusion. The Lento has been described as a ‘long and lyrical berceuse’. This is music that is approachable and satisfying. On the other hand the final ‘dance’ movement is another story. This is in ‘typical’ Mathias style as seen in a number of his organ works. However it does seem to lack consistency with the preceding two movements.
Interestingly, a quotation from Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony has been detected in the finale - somewhat ‘irrelevant’ one reviewer thought. It would be interesting to understand the reason for this gesture.
The Second Violin Sonata was commissioned by the Guild for the Promotion of Welsh Music. It was to celebrate the composer’s fiftieth birthday in 1984. The work was duly performed at the Swansea Festival on 16 October that year with Erich Gruenberg and John McCabe.
Mathias has made use of ‘blocks’ of musical material in this Sonata which he had derived from the works of Tippett and Stravinsky. This is used to create a ‘sonata’-like framework which allows for dialogue and self-reference throughout. The sound-world of this piece has moved on from ‘melody’ as such and depends to a large extent on the manipulation of motifs. It has been suggested that Mathias has used a transposed version of Shostakovich’s DSCH motive ‘presumably as an act of homage’. The second movement corresponds to a ‘scherzo’ but in reality this is more of a toccata with its rapid figuration testing the violinist’s technique. The slow movement is intense and is reminiscent of a funeral march. The finale is imposing, economical and is in the form of a ‘rondo’. I have not studied the score, but one feels that material used earlier in the work is being revisited. The slow episodes are introverted and quite beautiful. The conclusion of the movement and of the work is a riot of sound: there may even be a little hint of Iberia in these pages!
I believe that this Sonata may not impress the listener on a first hearing. But stick with it. There is much striking music in these pages that is worthy of the composer at his best.
The CD liner-notes by Geraint Lewis are excellent. He has contributed a great deal to the periodical literature about Mathias and has written the Grove entry. I would have liked a little more analysis of the 1952 Sonata - most of the notes deal with the compositional and performance history. My only gripe is that for a Naxos CD 53 minutes is a wee bitty short. Was there nothing else they could have included? Perhaps the Musette and Dance for two violins?
Finally the performances of these three Sonatas are excellent. There is a commitment from Sara Trickey and Iwan Llewelyn-Jones that understands and presents Mathias’s music in the best possible manner. This recording is likely to become definitive for many years to come.
Likely to become definitive for many years to come.