American Record Guide

Welshman William Mathias (1934-92) wrote in a modern but tradition-based manner with stylistic affinities to older colleagues like Britten, Tippett, Prokofieff, Stravinsky and Bartok. He combines memorable thematic ideas, vibrant color and drama, rhythmic verve, and demanding but idiomatic instrumental technique with satisfying (though sometimes unconventional) structural logic and skilful craftsmanship. Particularly effective are his use of shimmering polytonal harmonies arrayed in bright, airy textures but carefully stabilized by strong tonic anchors and clear formal outlines. The result is music that quickly grabs its audience, offers both old-fashioned and newer-sounding pleasures, and repays repeated listening with subtleties of harmony, architecture and feeling.

Mathias’s catalog is large, including three symphonies, many concertos and other orchestral works, vocal music and an opera or two, and lots of chamber music. Recordings of the latter category include an excellent program for violin, viola, cello and piano (Koch) and the two fine piano sonatas on Athene 24111. Many of Mathias’s chamber pieces turn up in anthologies, too.

The three string quartets exemplify Mathias’s consistent high standards of craft and inspiration. They are mature works, dating from 1967 to 1986. Each brims with strong musical ideas, is cogently put together and deftly scored for the instruments, and makes a strong impression of both fully-worked-out thematic development and emotional catharsis. Allegros are driving, sometimes laced with bite and fury, sometimes exhilarating; adagios are nocturnal, imbued with mystery and deep though not romantic feeling – closer to Bartok than to Barber.

The Medea Quartet plays very well, with spirit and sensitivity, but not quite the tonal sheen of a world-class ensemble. Metier’s sonics are clear and strong but lacking in air and not as full, finely detailed, or immediate as I’d like. In short this is a good but not ideal presentation of the music. I’m very happy to have it but I can’t help thinking that a top-of-the-line production would more fully reveal the stature of these outstanding quartets.