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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]
St. Albans Abbey Girls Choir, Lay Clerks of St Albans Cathedral Choir/Tom Winpenny (**organ)
Michael Papadopoulos (organ and piano secondo), Peter Foggitt (piano primo),
Orchestra Nova
*First recording
rec. 20-23 July 2015, St Albans Cathedral, Hertfordshire, England.
Texts included
NAXOS 8.573523 [71:44]

This is, so far as I’m aware, the third album devoted to the church music of William Mathias. Matthew Owens and Wells Cathedral Choir recorded a selection for Hyperion, which has not come my way (review). There’s also a collection from the American choir, Gloria Dei Cantores, which I have heard (review). There is some overlap of repertoire between the three discs but not to a significant degree, so enthusiasts for the Welsh composer’s music could safely invest in them all.

This new Naxos release has a lot going for it. One of its selling points is the inclusion of two first recordings. By a nice bit of symmetry these premieres are the first and last pieces of church music that Mathias composed. All thy works shall praise thee is a setting of words from Psalm 145 and was designed to be sung either in Welsh or, as here, in English. It’s a good piece, strong and confident in tone. From the other end of his career comes The Lord's Prayer. It was written for a Welsh male voice choir and was completed only months before the composer’s premature death. This is the first recording of an English version for SATB choir that Mathias himself made. I like it very much. Most of the writing consists of hushed, prayerful homophonic writing but the music rises to a strongly affirmative climax at ‘For Thine is the kingdom …’

There are two carol sequences in Tom Winpenny’s programme. Ave Rex is well known – indeed, it is among the composer’s most frequently performed works. It gets a very good performance here. The singing is sensitive in ‘There is no rose of such virtue’; elsewhere the choir – and organist Michael Papadopoulos - offer spirited renditions. Much less familiar is Salvator Mundi in which Mathias set seven English texts which date from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Salvator Mundi is scored for high voices, strings, piano duet and percussion. It was composed to mark the centenary of the leading girls school, Cheltenham Ladies College and the premiere was conducted by John Sanders who, at the time, was not only Organist of Gloucester Cathedral but also Director of Music at the College. I’d not heard it before and I rather think that performances are infrequent. If that’s so it must be due to the forces required since the music is excellent and varied. As Geraint Lewis observes in his notes, the work is “a combination of the joyful, tender and downright rumbustious”. The first and third pieces are nimble and athletic. Particularly striking is the fourth setting, ‘Lullay’. Here the music is gently lilting and includes a number of short solo opportunities, all of which are well taken. There’s a sense of mystery about the writing. The sixth piece, ‘Christe, redemptor omnium’ sounds rather like a medieval chant with the melody often accompanied by a choral drone and very sparingly used percussion. ‘Welcome, Yule’ brings the sequence to a joyful conclusion; here the music wears an infectious smile. The St Albans girls make a fine job of these pieces and I was very pleased to encounter Salvator Mundi for the first – but surely not the last – time.

Also new to me was An Admonition to Rulers and perhaps that’s unsurprising because, as Geraint Lewis relates, after its first performance at the 1969 Southern Cathedrals Festival the piece was never issued by Mathias’s regular publishers, OUP. It lay completely neglected for a long time until belatedly published by Stainer and Bell. It’s a most impressive piece, though the writing is challenging, both for the listener and also for the singers and organist. The words are taken from the Book of Wisdom. Essentially, the piece falls into three sections which play without a break. In the first the writing for both choir and organ is declamatory and jagged. There follows a section for two solo voices, a treble/soprano and a tenor. The soprano sings first (3:07-4:45) and then the tenor takes over (to 7:00). The vocal writing is very demanding, not least because the independent organ part, though very interesting and atmospheric, offers no real support to the singers. Tenor Oliver Martin-Smith does very well indeed but since he is, presumably, a professional singer I hope he won’t take it amiss if I single out for special praise Louise Kataria who sings the first part of this section. This young singer tackles this demanding music with great assurance and sings her solo very well and very intelligently. Bravo! Once the choir resumes after the tenor solo Mathias expands the music gradually and impressively though the very end is tranquil. This is a very fine piece which deserves to be much better known.

The ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ which Mathias wrote for Jesus College, Cambridge are securely established in the Evensong repertoire and rightly so. There’s joyful energy in the Magnificat while the Nunc dimittis is suitably thoughtful. The present performance is excellent. So, too, is the rendition of As truly as God is our Father. Mathias wrote this for the Friends of St Paul’s Cathedral at the request of the late John Scott who was then the Organist of St Paul’s. It’s a setting of words by the medieval mystic Mother Julian of Norwich, culminating in the famous words, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” The music is eloquent and spacious – the latter quality no doubt with the huge acoustic of St Paul’s in mind. It seems to me that Mathias responds very acutely to the words.

This is a fine collection of music by this important Welsh composer who might have achieved so much more had he not died aged only 58. The singing throughout the programme is first rate. Tom Winpenny has clearly prepared the singers thoroughly and he directs them equally well. He is the Assistant Master of the Music at St Alban’s Cathedral where the Girls Choir is his particular responsibility. We also hear him, briefly, in his role as organist, giving a sparkling rendition of the exuberant Toccata Giocosa. Elsewhere the organ parts, all of them challenging, are safe in the hands of Michael Papadopoulos.

The notes are by the composer, Geraint Lewis, who I understand was a colleague and friend of William Mathias.  His notes offer an excellent introduction to the music. The producer and engineer is Adrian Lucas, Organist of Worcester Cathedral between 1996 and 2011. He has recorded the music very successfully. The choir is clearly heard and is in good balance with the organ, which comes over very well, and with the accompanying instruments in Salvator Mundi.

I enjoyed this CD very much: it’s a feather in the cap of the musicians of St Albans Cathedral.

John Quinn

Previous review: Nick Barnard



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