American Record Guide

William Mathias (1934-92) was an English (actually Welsh) composer with a large catalog of concertos, chamber music, and vocal works, as well as three symphonies, an opera or two, and some dramatic pieces. His output for solo piano is rather small, limited to the two sonatas on this program and a few other short items. Mathias quickly gained popularity in his homeland, and much of his music has been recorded. It’ s easy to understand why. He writes in a modern but tradition-based and easily approachable style that combines sensuous appeal, virtuosity, verve, idiomatic understanding of the instruments, and fine craftsmanship. Shimmering pol ytonal harmonies arrayed in bright, airy textures add hedonic luster but are stabilized by strong tonic anch ors and never obscure the music’ s clear formal outlines. As Jack Sullivan described Mathias’ s chamber pieces on Koch 7326 (Jan/Feb 1996), they are .full of color and melodic invention. They also have a quality in short supply today: charm. His forms are tight and precise; no piece goes on too long. Echoes of Prokofieff, Poulenc, and Bartok, especially in the piano writing, do not interfere with a distinct and engaging voice.

Mathias’ s First Sonata, from 1963, lasts 15 minutes and is cast in three movements that follow the expec ted fast-slow-fast pattern. It’s a splendid piece, with big, bold gestures perfectly designed for the piano that draw the listener in at once. The outer allegros bound along with lots of exhilarating drive and dazzle but never feel frenetic or strained, even in the thrilling toccata finale, where jouncy additive rhythms torque up the energy to a positively galvanic level of excitement. The central andante is both misty and dignified, with the slow lilt and faintly archaic air of a sarabande. Pianists looking for works of comparable bravura demands and audience allure to, say, Prokofieff’s Seventh or Ginastera’ s First should investigate this sonata. It would make a stunning effect in performance.

Mathias’ s Second Sonata (1969) uses similar materials but structures them quite differently, and for very different aesthetic purposes. It is a single 15-minute span that contrasts brilliant, tumultuous cascades with slow, floridly rhapsodic episodes; and it is much more volatile, astringent, fervent, and searching than its predecessor, and for all its glittering ferocity, far more introspective. The slower sections are especially enigmatic and atmospheric, with a sort of wintry mystery that recalls Frank Bridge and John Ireland in their somber, runic evocations of ancient Celtic legends and rites. This mood prevails, and the work ends quietly, in shrouded, dreamlike irresolution.

John Pickard was born 1963 and, like Mathias, studied in Wales. The musical language of his 11-minute nocturnal fantasy from 1995, A Starlit Dome , and 25-minute 1987 Piano Sonata, might be described as picking up not far from where Mathias’ s Second Sonata ends, though Pickard is “heavier” – sounding, and his strenuous, sometimes relentless musical argument and thick velvet curtains of sound can become tiring. He neither has, nor aims for, a light touch, and in fact (as he explains) his music is inspired by distinctly ambitious and serious subjects. A Starlit Dome i s an expression of the composer’ s awe at the unfathomable riddle of the cosmos, his sonata a lament for and protest of the social injustices of this world. Both are too dense and lacking in the variety of mood and of sound needed to sust ain interest. I noted Pickard’s tendency to fixate on tough, angry, timbrally impoverished ideas in his three string quartets on Dutton 7117 (Sept/Oct 2002), but those works are redeemed by moments of touching elegiac tenderness that don’ t appear here. Listeners more attuned to pianistic fire and fury may enjoy them more than I do.

Raymond Clarke plays this very demanding program with spirit and dexterity but too mu ch pedal; and the recording isn’ t as detailed and sharp as it should be, blurring articulations and making fortes clangorous. Despite these flaws, Mathias’ s music makes a strong and satisfying impression and is well worth seeking out.

—Lehman