William MATHIAS (1934-1992)
Piano Concerto No. 1 Op.2, (ed. Rhiannon Mathias and Geraint Lewis) (1955) [24:52]
Piano Concerto No. 2 Op.13 (1961) [23:59]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasy for piano and orchestra (ed. Graham Parlett) (1896-1902 rev. 1904) [21:23]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Ulster Orchestra/George Vass
rec. 15-16 May 2011, Ulster Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland
SOMM SOMMCD 246[70:46]

For admirers of British music a disc containing three world première recordings of major works by two important composers is welcome, significant and a cause for celebration. There is always a degree of caution needed since ‘early’ works are often withheld or withdrawn by their composers concerned about the lasting merit of the works. But history shows many examples where their maker’s anxiety is either excessive or often downright wrong. I’m pleased to be able to say that my knowledge of both William Mathias and Ralph Vaughan Williams is enriched and my admiration increased - of Mathias especially - for having heard these works. For sure they might not represent the composer’s finest work but conversely you do realise what ferociously talented artists they were even at a young age.
I like the anecdote related by Mathias’s daughter Rhiannon in her liner-note that the Piano Concerto No.1 was played by the student Mathias to his external examiner Edmund Rubbra as part of his B.Mus. in composition at Aberystwyth. The senior composer was so taken aback by the quality of the work he immediately awarded Mathias a first class degree. Frankly, that action does not surprise me at all - confident and assured are the best descriptions I can come up with for this work. Mathias’s work never exhibits any kind of regionalism or post-modern romanticism. Instead his sound-world is dominated by acerbic dissonance within a tonal framework, brilliance in orchestration and confident handling of complex rhythmic units. Not surprisingly in this student work the source of these influences is more readily audible and less integrated into a personal musical aesthetic. Bartók springs to mind together with elements of Shostakovich. Interestingly I hear similar parallels with several early works by Malcolm Arnold - his String Quartet No.1 is a prime example - where the true character of the composer is subsumed by something rather self-consciously serious. But there is so much to admire here - although the orchestration is relatively standard already Mathias had a sure touch for telling detail - his use of the side-drum ratcheting up tension at key points for example. More to the point his avoidance of excess shows a maturity way beyond his years. The writing for both soloist and orchestra is exact and telling without unnecessary doublings or thickening of textures. His handling of the work’s structure is impressive too. Even at first listen the music draws you forward in the logic of its terse argument and development. Clearly Mathias never had problems writing dancing or energetic music as evidenced by the two outer movements of this standard three movement work. But possibly the greatest maturity he shows here is in the powerful yet poised central Lento. Again it is the economy used to articulate strong emotions that impresses. The pained climax is framed by bleakly haunted musical landscapes the latter building over an ostinato figure to a final sustained march-like episode which in turn evaporates into a final bleak utterance from the piano. If the finale feels a little more like note spinning without quite the convincing through-line of the two preceding movements that is more a comment on the quality of the former than the lesser stature of the latter. For certain this is a work that deserves to be heard and it receives the finest possible advocacy here.
All that being said it is hard no to realise just how much Mathias the composer matured between the first concerto of 1956 and the second just five years later. Rhiannon Mathias describes the later work as “the first expression of an important and more mature phase in my father’s development”. That this is palpably true is clear from the very opening bars. The music breathes a less earnest air - by no means ‘light’ this is music that wears its intellect more easily. Textures are subtler, part writing more elegant yet the individuality and quality of the music is never in doubt. The orchestration points the structural and melodic material more effectively with the various elements of the orchestral and solo material more successfully overlaid and inter-meshed in contrast to the block juxtaposition preferred in the earlier work. Mathias experiments with a four movement quasi-symphonic form. Both works have an element of concertante rather display concerto to them. For sure the soloist is the first amongst equals yet you have a sense that in the development of musical arguments there is an equal partnership and that being the case there is no place for cadenzas or virtuoso writing for vituosity’s sake. The four movement form does permit a pair of contrasting central movements. The first of this pair is an excitingly propulsive Allegro molto vivace - the constant misplacing of rhythms and accents occasionally echoing Walton in its vibrant energy. As in the first concerto the slow movement proves Mathias to be a composer of lyrical power and emotional depth - there’s a dirge-like ceremonial atmosphere present here that put me in mind of Bridge’s Oration, indeed the same composer’s magnificent Phantasm occupies a similar emotional landscape. The final Allegro alla danza follows without a break and seeks to revisit the amalgam of moods covered earlier in the work. This gradually coalesces into compound time dancing rhythms combined with Waltonian fanfares etched with tambourine and whooping horns. Why such a rewarding and immediately appealing work should be neglected is quite without rhyme or reason and hopefully this performance will start to redress the balance. Mathias has not benefited from extended advocacy by any recording company. Nimbus and Lyrita have made significant contributions but this is a body of work that surely deserves a ‘collected edition’.
The decision of the Vaughan Williams estate to allow the publication and performance of several significant early scores has forced a major re-evaluation of his development as a composer. Vaughan Williams started writing his Fantasy in 1896 when he was 24 but was still tinkering with it eight years later by which time work had also commenced on the uneven but majestic Sea Symphony. You would have to say on this evidence that Mathias was a more assured and complete composer in his mid-twenties than Vaughan Williams - for example the latter falls foul of the sin of over-scoring which Mathias so deftly avoids. The shade of Brahms falls across the work in the use of melodic shape and harmony. The piano writing too is rather self-consciously ‘big’ in a Tchaikovskian way. But you must remember that the liberating influence of editing the English Hymnal as well as discovering folksong lay in the future. This is a composer priming the pump of his genius - in the mid 1890s he was still to go to Berlin on a ‘working honeymoon’ where he studied with Max Bruch and heard Bach, Brahms, and Wagner. The appearance of a rather academic jig-like section around the fifteen minute mark shows him straining at the leash of Germanic rectitude without being quite sure what to do about it. Having enjoyed very much the Hyperion discs of the early chamber music as well as Willow-wood and especially The Garden of Proserpine I would have to say that this Fantasy does not match any of those works with regard to flashes of the mature composer’s genius. If, as I am, you are interested in witnessing the path trod by Vaughan Williams en route to the masterpieces of his later years this does make for a fascinating listen.
Mark Bebbington is coming something of a house-pianist for Somm whether in solo recital or concertante mode. As evidenced on those earlier discs he has all the technical aspects of these works firmly under control. I admire too the way he adjusts he playing style to accommodate the more modernist acerbic Mathias or the grand romantic rhetoric of the Vaughan Williams. The Ulster orchestra play with their usual skill and conductor George Vass gives convincing interpretations of by definition unfamiliar works. If I have a minor disappointment at all with this disc it is with the recording. By no means is it anything but acceptable but the orchestra does not have the weight or bloom that they have had when recorded in the Ulster Hall by other companies. I know the hall has recently been refurbished and I do not know how that impacts on an engineer’s ability to place his equipment or the orchestra as they might like. The strings sound relatively small and dry and the brass is rather closely miked. The more overtly grand Vaughan Williams suffers significantly more than the lean Mathias from the lack of weight the orchestra can generate as recorded - the sound Chandos managed to obtain there in say their Delius Florida Suite would have been ideal. Conversely the piano is placed believably in the instrumental group although the textures do become somewhat opaque in the climactic passages of the Fantasy. This is more a question of scoring than recording but the sound does stay stubbornly short of demonstration class. The liner notes are informative and illuminating - has Michael Kennedy ever not been just so - and the personal note from Mathias’s daughter is especially welcome. Bebbington should encourage Somm to update the version of his biography they use since it quotes “his recently released recording of John Ireland Volume 1 has also been awarded 5***** in October 2008 BBC Music magazine” - in 2011 we have had volume 3 and I assume volume 4 is close at hand.
Unknown Vaughan Williams is always a delight to discover. Of the Mathias concertos the second in particular is the treasure here. 
Nick Barnard

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and John France
Unknown Vaughan Williams is always a delight to discover. Of the Mathias concertos the second in particular is the treasure here.