The Welsh composer William Mathias died at the grievously young age of 58. I knew his name because of the Sinfonietta on a Pye LP (GSGC 14103). His music came to mean more to me when in 1975 I taped from BBC Radio 3 the first broadcast performance of This Worldes Joie . It was conducted by the composer who directed massed choirs – including children’s choirs – and the BBC Welsh Orchestra. The soloists were Kenneth Bowen and Janet Price. I listened obsessively to this extravagantly orchestrated work on tape and became increasingly impressed and won over. His writing for voices is orally intriguing and inventive; the same applies to his startling way with the percussion. There are echoes of Britten but the music breathes a deeper humanity and a more yielding emotional air. You can now hear that piece on Lyrita SRCD325 having first been issued on an EMI Classics LP (ASD3301). After that choral broadcast from the Fishguard Festival I scanned the Radio Times and added recordings of his orchestral pieces Requiescat , Litanies , Visas , Helios and Laudi . Hearing his Elegy for a Prince I was further won over by the lapidary Baxian orchestral technique and ceremonial-magical atmosphere – the aural equivalent of druidic tapestry in motion. As for his Dance Overture it is irresistibly catchy and has more rumba in it than the Arthur Benjamin genre pieces.
Mathias wrote three symphonies and three string quartets. We can hear the three quartets conveniently assembled on this disc by a quartet who performed the Third Quartet and who were then invited to tackle all three. This they did at three separate recording sessions so there is no sense of a gabbled or ill-thought through results.
The First Quartet is dedicated to Alun Hoddinott and his wife Rhiannon. It inhabits a sombre world afflicted, to varying degrees of intensity, by anxiety. The language stands between the gloomier reaches of the ensemble writing in Warlock’s The Curlew and the later Bartók quartets. This is leavened but never completely dispelled by a Bartokian didicoi wildness of the violins at 16:38. At 19:20 the violin primo is memorably heard high in the stave whistling wistfully. The music ends in a not unclouded tenderness.
The music of the four movement Second Quartet takes wing although always feeling the pull of sorrow. The solo violin carries this flighted buoyancy (tr. 2 4:02) but there are also vigorous chafing insect-stridulant voices. The second movement smacks of folk music veering between the Celtic muse and the Appalachian hills. There’s also a Britten-like pizzicato which in this close recording pings in the ears with physical impact. The andante returns to the gloomy undertow of the First Quartet. The finale has the exuberant complexity of the Tippett Concerto for Double String Orchestra as well as the seething weave of insectiform lines.
Mathias’s last quartet – The Third – was not intended to be his last. He had accepted a commission from the Lindsays but death intervened. The third is in three movements. Lyrical release can be found in the first movement as can springy Tippett-like ideas often set amid potently grave reflective writing. The finale begin dramatically with a sort of suppressed shriek and soon develops a strongly etched rhythmic energy – a rough magic that also ends the piece.
Interesting that all three of these serious works have an Eastern European leaning amid a rooted tonality spiced with dissonance.