William Mathias’ early works are somewhat more rewarding than some of his later ones when he developed his ‘recessional music’ where his music no longer developed or worked towards expected climaxes.
He was an excellent pianist having studied with Peter Katin and his understanding of the piano is assured. The Piano Sonata No 1, Op 23 is individual, strong and expertly laid out for the piano. It has a brilliance that is not that uncomfortable dazzling white light that blinds because it is always at the top of the piano, but a rugged brilliance. It teems with energy. It may not have the swaggering gait of the Piano Concerto No 3 but it is impressive. The slow movement is worth getting to know. It has a beauty and simplicity that defies its depth. The final toccata is full of vitality and athletic leaps.
The Sonata No 2, Op 46 dates from 1969 and is one of many piano sonatas that have employed the terrific Liszt Sonata as their model. Humphrey Searle did this first in 1951 in accordance with the precise instruction of the body commissioning this sonata for the 140th anniversary of Liszt’s birth. The Mathias is in the slow-fast-slow format. The opening is uneasy and listless and then the music suddenly releases a tremendous blast and internal energy. And how well Raymond Clarke performs it and how splendidly the recording engineer captures this high drama. This is good, old-fashioned exciting piano music full of suspense, tension and exhilaration. The final section explores wonderful harmonies and arabesque figures and eventually leads to a quiet ending.
John Pickard was born in Lancashire in 1963 and studied with William Mathias. His orchestral piece The Flight of Icarus was included in the 1996 BBC Promenade Concerts and was very well received. He has written three symphonies, a Trombone Concerto and four string quartets. He is a composer to watch.
A Starlit Dome dates from 1995 and lasts about eleven minutes. It is an extended nocturne which reveals the composer’s interest in astronomy. He has called the piece an ‘astronomical nocturne’. It is a piece that begins and progresses mysteriously and quietly (and yet the music is never uninteresting). But an underlying agitation becomes apparent and the work heads towards a conclusion of tremendous and satisfying energy. It is a good piece.
Pickard’s Piano Sonata of 1987 is a massive work in two parts, slow and fast. It has a brief and powerful start and the exemplary playing and excellent recording enhance this quality music. The composer may say that he wrote it in a comparative hurry and yet every aspect of the work shows evidence of careful and detailed planning. Although the first part of this sonata is slow it is strong and rugged and is itself in two halves each with a long theme with four variations. Any introspection is never a dreamy sentimental wallow although the music sometimes has the feel of a solemn occasion such as a cortege. But it is powerful music often reminding me of Liszt’s Funerailles. Slow music does not have to be boringly soft and tedious; it can be powerful and strong like this. The composer speaks of the work’s ferocity of expression and in the sleeve-note makes a political statement, to which he is, of course, entitled but I hope it does not serve to threaten or hinder his career. He is a composer with a very positive musical ability.
The second half of part one hints at Chopin’s revolutionary study. Again the music is very strong and absolutely fascinating. Even something simple like the progression of chords has a great interest in their harmonic content particularly in the final pages.
Part two has a relentless onward drive with toccatas and ostinati. And, if I may display a hobby-horse again, this is a real fast movement. The tempo remains a fierce allegro and lasts about ten minutes. It is angry music, perhaps young man’s music … exciting and percussive and very stirring. The piece is a revelation. The recording is spell-binding; the performances are staggering. Clarke is in complete control … absolutely astonishing. And the CD booklet contains a picture of Raymond Clarke with his cat. It completed a wonderful hour of music.