Wednesday, 18 August 2010

William Mathias: Piano Sonatas

I have always been an enthusiast of William Mathias’ music – ever since I heard the organ piece ‘Jubilate’ played in Llandudno’s Ebenezer Methodist Church over thirty years ago. Of course back in those days there was little available on LP. However there was an edition of the complete organ works which I listened to often, lent to a friend and subsequently lost. There were also a few orchestral works on a number of compilations. It was not until Nimbus issued the three Symphonies that I heard a major work. And of course the Lyrita CDs available from Harold Moore’s Records add considerably to the Mathias catalogue. However I had never heard the Piano Sonatas until this present review copy landed on my doorstep.

Apparently, although Mathias was an excellent pianist he did not compose much for the piano (for this purpose we will not include the three concerti!) I belive that there are only four pieces –the two sonatas and a couple of miniatures.
William Mathias’ Sonata No. 1 was composed in 1963. The model for this work is usually regarded as Michael Tippet’s Second Sonata (1962); however there is no question of cribbing or pastiche. This is very much Mathias’ own music. The musicologist Malcolm Boyd has said that this is ‘a work of tremendous power and sinew – one of the most masculine of all Mathias’ pieces.’ He goes on to add that the contrast between the aggressive energy of the first and third movement and the dreamy rhapsodising of the central one ‘illustrates the two facets of Mathias dual musical personality – the fervent Welshman and the urbane cosmopolitan.’ It is this contrast which makes the piece for me. The closing pages refer back to the opening and provide the unity of purpose which makes this an extremely convincing work. A fine addition to the superb (but largely unknown) corpus of British Piano Sonatas.

The Second Sonata is composed in the Lisztian model of a single movement. The idea being that the traditional exposition, development and recapitulation of classical sonata form are largely equated with the equally classical three movements. Mathias writes a slow- fast – slow structure that allows the opening theme to be restated in the closing pages. There has been criticism that this work alludes to harmonic language of Messiaen. But the reality is that this is a work of its time. Any references to the French composer (or anyone else) are incidental. This is very much Mathais’ own music and as such it is a masterpiece. One only has to think back to the late sixties and early seventies to think of some of the stuff that passed as music to thank goodness that Mathias wrote in an approachable, if somewhat challenging style. This music, like much of Messiaen, is timeless. There can be no better recommendation.

These two Sonatas can be heard on the Divine Art CD 24111 of Piano Music by William Mathias and John Pickard.

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