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William MATHIAS (1934-1992)
Lift up your heads, O ye gates Op.44 No.2 (1969) [2:27]
Ave Rex Op.45 (1969) [12:43]
Wassail Carol Op.26 No.1 (1964) [2:13]
As truly as God is our Father (1987) [6:26]
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis Op.53 (1971) [7:19]
Toccata Giocosa Op.36 No.2 (1967) [3:37]
All thy works shall praise thee Op.17b (1961) [3:33]
The Lord's Prayer (1992) [4:26]
An Admonition to Rulers Op.43 (1969) [12:20]
Salvator Mundi Op.89 (1982) [16:39]
Michael Papadopoulos (organ and piano secondo), Peter Foggitt (piano primo)
Orchestra Nova
St. Albans Abbey Girls Choir, Lay Clerks of St Albans Cathedral Choir/Tom Winpenny (organ)
rec. July 20-23 2015, St Albans Cathedral Hertfordshire, England.
NAXOS 8.573523 [71:44]

I find it extraordinary to think that William Mathias died nearly twenty-five years ago now; what a great loss that he was at only fifty eight years old. Since then the catalogue has not exactly been awash with multiple recordings of music by this skilled and appealing composer. Lyrita and Nimbus are the main contributors to his recorded legacy - and most of those recordings are around the twenty year old mark as well. There have been individual discs of interest and worth but I think it is fair to say that he remains under-represented in the current catalogue in terms of quantity and diversity of material.

Which makes a new disc wholly devoted to his sacred/choral music especially welcome. There are similar programmes available; Stephen Darlington on Nimbus from Christs Church Oxford, Elizabeth Patterson with the Gloriae Dei Cantores and Matthew Owens on Hyperion with the Wells Cathedral Choir. I do not know any of those other recordings - there is some degree of repertoire overlap but the fact that there is not more is a measure of the amount of music Mathias wrote.

This new Naxos disc from St. Albans Abbey featuring their girls’ choir is very good. It was recorded over a three day period in 2015. I wonder how much of the music is in the choir's regular repertoire; this is vocally demanding, indeed often virtuosic writing, and occasionally the treble line in particular sounded slightly ragged. Not for conductor/musical director Tom Winpenny the ultra-blended slightly inhuman sound of some church choirs - clearly he chooses to allow individual voices to feature within the overall texture. The programme here is well planned covering much of Mathias' career from the early(ish) All thy works shall praise thee (1961) through to the very moving The Lord's Prayer (1992). Both of these recordings are premieres. Elsewhere there are some Mathias 'pops' - the opening Lift up your heads, O ye gates for one. This gives an instant litmus test of the style of the music and performance; bright-eyed and alert, jubilant and uplifting. Chorally quite light-toned with the organ accompaniment present but quite recessed so as not to overwhelm the voices. The liner lists 19 treble/girls and a further 15 lay clerks. Mathias made his name with this kind of infectiously appealing setting and his reputation was reinforced by an ability to write good 'new' Christmas carols.

His best known collection of these are four brought together under the title Ave Rex in 1969. Interesting to make comparison between the - original - version recorded here and the orchestrated version that can be heard on Lyrita SRCD324. The St. Albans Choir have exactly the right kind of scintillating silvery tone that makes the rather matronly ladies of the Welsh National Opera Chorus sound earth-bound. But Mathias' later orchestration is a delight and fine though the organ accompaniment is here, as played by Michael Papadopoulos, the orchestra in full flood is better still. The second movement Alleluya, a new work is come on hand is an example of the upper voices losing tone and ensemble in this tricky writing. The third section, There is a rose of such virtue provides a suitable section of calm reflection with lovely examples of Mathias’ harmonic language where sequences of unresolved dissonances give his music that sound of ringing brilliance. The closing Sir Christèmas remains justly popular as an excerpted item in its rhythmically side-slipping clumping folksong style. Again it gets an energetic performance here - perhaps the organ a little more forward could have added even more weight and attack. Hilary Davan-Wetton excerpted it as part of his In Terra Pax compilation on Naxos with the City of London Choir and they are fleeter, tighter and probably all-round more impressive. The following - but earlier - Wassail song - is another instantly attractive carol written for the King's College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis Op.53 appear on several of these collections. It was written for Jesus College Cambridge to celebrate the dedication of a new organ. The Nunc Dimittis is a particularly impressive work - less overtly complex than some of the other works here but thereby gaining an austere and reflective beauty.

Tom Winpenny moves from the conductor's podium to the organ loft to play the Toccata Giocosa as some kind of interlude. He plays it very well indeed - the organ remains relatively at a distance which some listeners might prefer. Certainly the Naxos engineers have achieved good balance and clarity, but personally I would prefer to hear it from a closer perspective. Mathias’ setting of The Lord's Prayer was not first performed until four months after the composer's death. Geraint Lewis’ good liner note refers to its “fervent simplicity” which encapsulates the mood perfectly. This is given in Mathias' own version for mixed voices in English, the original having been written for a Welsh Male voice choir. Fine as this performance is - a highlight of the disc in fact, even though they could have had another take just to clean up the very first choir entry - I can imagine the original conception getting the hairs up on the back of the neck. The longest single work on the disc is An admonition to Rulers. This was a Three Choirs Festival commission and is a darker, more unsettled piece than some of the joyful certainty of the carol settings. The words are taken from The Wisdom of Solomon - all sung texts are included in the booklet - but the fact that this is not part of the liturgy but is a sacred work means it is hard to programme except in concert. At over twelve minutes long it is a substantial and demanding sing but only part of a concert half so again hard to 'place'. A CD may well be its ideal home. There are extended treble and tenor solos which are far from simple, but this proves to be another highlight of the disc.

The programme is completed by another cycle of Christmas songs; Salvator Mundi for choir with strings, piano duet and percussion accompaniment. Lewis again sums it up well: “a combination of the joyful, tender and downright rumbustious”. These qualities suit the style of this choir well with the slight rawness in the treble tone matching the directness of the music’s spirit. Orchestra Nova provide the accompaniment and it’s neat and alert again, as the music requires, and is well balanced in the generous Abbey acoustic. There is very much the sense of the origin of the word 'Carol' coming from dance. This is Mathias at his most joyous - a pleasure for performer and audience alike. The fourth song of the cycle - Lullay - exposes the lack of absolute control in the young soloists. Elsewhere Mathias' use of percussion, strings and piano does bring passing echoes of Orff out of Walton. Overall, it suitable uplifting conclusion to a wholly enjoyable disc.

Good production and engineering by Adrian Lucas. Running to over seventy one minutes this is a useful and wide-ranging survey of Mathias' work in this genre of which he was an undoubted master. It would be nice to think that this might prompt companies to revisit his other large scale choral and orchestral works which all deserve new recordings.

Nick Barnard



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