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ClassicsOnline Home » MATHIAS, W.: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 / Violin Sonata (1952) (Trickey, Llewelyn-Jones)
William Mathias’s eloquent and accessible style comes to the fore in these première recordings of his music for violin and piano. His unpublished Violin Sonata (1952) is a highly original and ambitious work from his student days. The First Violin Sonata is a model of clarity and concision, while the Second Violin Sonata, commissioned to celebrate the composer’s 50th birthday, is cast in four vividly contrasted—and virtuosic—movements. Sara Trickey, praised by The Strad for her ‘fiery and passionate’ playing, joins Iwan Llewelyn-Jones whose ‘power and clean-cut precision’ has been acclaimed by The Guardian.
By Mark L Lehman
American Record Guide
William Mathias (1934–1992)
William Mathias was born in Whitland in Carmarthenshire on 1 November 1934, and died on 29 July 1992, at Menai Bridge on Anglesey. His contribution to the development of music in Wales during the second half of the twentieth century was enormously wide-ranging and along with Alun Hoddinott (1929–2008) he is one of very few Welsh composers to establish an international reputation. He studied at Aberystwyth University and then at the Royal Academy of Music with Sir Lennox Berkeley and Peter Katin. On leaving London in 1959 Mathias was appointed lecturer in music at Bangor University and apart from a year as composition lecturer at Edinburgh University (1968–9) he remained at Bangor, where he was Professor of Music from 1970 until his early retirement in 1988. In 1972 he established the North Wales Music Festival and continued to direct this annual event until his untimely death. He was frequently active as a conductor and pianist and served several public bodies and committees, most notably the Welsh Arts Council in Cardiff and the BBC’s Central Music Advisory Panel in London. After an initial visit in 1975, every year from 1982 onwards he went to America, where his music and personality became increasingly popular. The death of such a major figure at the height of his powers was an immeasurable loss not only to composition but to the general burgeoning of musical life in Wales and its influence in the wider world.
As prolific as he was versatile, Mathias left a catalogue of nearly 200 published works in virtually all musical genres. Coming, as he did, from an indigenous culture dominated by singing and amateur music-making, he was determined to establish his credentials as a composer armed with a formidable technique in the fields of instrumental and orchestral music. His early output is therefore dominated by three piano concertos, the popular Divertimento for Strings, Dance Overture, Wind Quintet, Symphony No.1 and the First String Quartet—major works with which he consolidated his reputation among the leading British festivals and orchestras. But following the inclusion of the Wassail Carol in the 1964 Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, commissions for church, organ and choral music began to flow and Mathias went on to carve a niche in this field as a composer with a fresh and distinctive voice. He held strongly to Britten’s view that a composer should work within the immediate community and his natural gift for vivid and accessible communication was perfect for such an approach. Believing firmly that the sacred and secular were indivisible Mathias’s overall legacy is richly varied yet coherently integrated. The two further symphonies and string quartets, eight concertos and other concertante, chamber and orchestral works thus rub shoulders happily with the opera The Servants, masque St Teilo, morality Jonah, cantata This Worlde’s Joie, requiem-variant Lux Aeterna and choral epithalamium World’s Fire; and the introspective medieval brooding of the orchestral Requiescat can naturally form part of the same creative vision as the joyful anthem composed for the wedding of HRH The Prince of Wales to the late Lady Diana Spencer on 29 July 1981, in St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 15, was Mathias’s first commission from the Cheltenham Festival, where it had its première on 12th July, 1962, with Tessa Robbins and the pianist Robin Wood. A year earlier Wood had given the first performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 13, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Llandaff Festival and a sketch for the sonata dates back as far as November 1958, just a matter of months before work also began on the concerto. The sonata was then composed between March and July 1961 when the concerto was being prepared for performance and so it is not surprising to find certain aspects of that work’s broader canvas refined and concentrated in the sonata. A characteristic hallmark of Mathias’s mature style is a quest for clarity and concision both in the presentation of material and its subsequent development. The sonata wastes no time in presenting the essence of its argument as two sharply contrasted ideas: the first ‘spiky and aggressively rhythmic’ (to quote the composer) and the second ‘melodic and flowing’. These pivot around the notes C sharp, E and D which proceed to form the respective tonal centres of the three unfolding movements so that the longer-term direction of the sonata evolves organically from its initial thematic kernel. The central slow movement has the character of an intensely lyrical ‘berceuse’ while the energetically dance-like finale gradually resolves the tensions of the work as a whole.
Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 94 was the result of a commission from the Guild for the Promotion of Welsh Music to be given at the Swansea Festival in celebration of Mathias’s fiftieth birthday year. He chose to write a work for the distinguished violinist Erich Gruenberg in partnership with composer-pianist John McCabe and the première was given at the Brangwyn Hall on 16 October 1984. The sonata is cast in four vividly contrasted movements and makes virtuosic demands of both performers. When compared to the First Sonata, the Second has on the one hand an even greater degree of thematic concentration while on the other it is more ambitious in scale and structural design. The opening movement material is pared to the bone and the violent initial contrast is the most extreme the composer ever countenanced—a sense of pent-up tension giving way immediately to intense introspection. A sonata-form dialogue is set up whose unresolved argument has enough force to unwind through a single-minded scherzo-toccata and an elegiac central slow movement. The exuberant finale then emerges without a break from a sinewy cadenza and its unbridled energy runs through a rondo structure capable of both encompassing and resolving the earlier dialectic impasse towards an exhilarating runaway ending.
Of particular interest on this disc is the first recording of an early Violin Sonata which Mathias completed in the summer of 1952. Mathias started to compose prolifically as a child and this piece actually represents the culmination of what he always referred to as his ‘juvenile’ phase and in that sense is but the tip of a considerable iceberg. Written after finishing his school exams, the sonata went with him as an undergraduate to Aberystwyth and was the first work of his to be publicly performed at the University, when the composer played it with the violinist Edward Bor on 16 May 1953. He obviously thought well enough of this teenage work to enter it a little later as the first item in his personal catalogue of compositions though, perhaps significantly, without an opus number. But along with some two dozen other works written during his student years the sonata was subsequently withdrawn and never performed again, nor was it offered for publication as part of an exclusive contract with Oxford University Press in 1961. Towards the end of his life in 1992 Mathias went systematically through his entire compositional archive, prior to its being housed in the National Library of Wales, and singled out those withdrawn works which he thought should see the light of day—and this sonata was firmly not among them. He was in fact vehemently opposed to the posthumous rehabilitation of a composer’s hidden works, as was indeed happening in the case of Benjamin Britten. In recent years, however, the composer’s estate has carefully considered some requests to release embargoed scores on a limited basis, and so, when it was suggested in 2008 that the Violin Sonata might be included on this recording, permission was granted for an exploratory private performance. As a result of this session at London’s Wigmore Hall in the summer of 2009 it was agreed that, although it was clearly not a fully representative work, it was nevertheless of such astonishing power and originality as a self-taught pre-student work that it should be heard in that light. The public second première at Galeri, Caernarfon, on 2 July 2010 eloquently confirmed such an impression and so this ambitious and emotionally direct music can now cast a valuable light on the mind-set of the young Mathias, as he set out from home to widen his horizons and embark on the first steps towards a professional composing career.
Geraint Lewis, 2010
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