Notes and Editorial Reviews
These three very different works have been dealt with admirably. A huge sympathy and understanding is evident.
Piano Concertos: No. 1; No. 2.
Mark Bebbington (pn); George Vass, cond; Ulster O
SOMM SOMMCD 246 (70:42)
An English online reviewer wrote that it is
always interesting to hear early works by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Interesting yes, because of what came later, but this Fantasy—begun in 1896 and finally completed in 1904—does not hold a great deal of interest for its own sake. Vaughan Williams did not find his true voice as a composer until he incorporated the modality of British folk song into his music. Here we have second-hand Brahms. Additionally, the piano was not Vaughan Williams’s instrument, and the keyboard writing in the Fantasy speaks of application rather than fluency. Even in the highly individual and much more successful Piano Concerto of 1931, the soloist is given full chords and double-octave passages that sound heavy and cumbersome. Much of this Fantasy strives for grandeur, a quality Vaughan Williams achieved in spades in works like the
, but in this case the result seems empty, partly due to an absence of memorable thematic material and the lack of a personal voice. The composer suppressed this piece, along with a good deal of his other early work, and it remained unknown until after his death.
By contrast, the Welsh composer William Mathias (1934–92) seemed to find his voice early: a Celtic lyricism sitting alongside a hard-edged rhythmic vitality that is clearly Stravinskian. Mathias also had an identifiable sound as an orchestrator, often pointing rhythmic passages and climaxes with tuned percussion. His Piano Concerto No. 1 was written in 1955 when the composer was a 20-year-old student. The work greatly impressed Edmund Rubbra, among others. It is a three-movement concerto with buoyant outer movements but a rather stern (perhaps self-consciously modern) central Largo. After several performances Mathias withdrew the concerto, but was reconsidering editing it for publication when he died.
The standout on this disc is Mathias’s Second Piano Concerto of 1961. Clearly influenced by Tippett’s Piano Concerto, but none the worse for that, it combines strength with fluidity. The work is in four movements: a lyrical prelude, a tough
allegro molto vivace
, a brief
leading into a multifaceted finale marked
allegro alla danza
. Tippett is recalled in the glittering high figuration of the piano part, and stentorian brass fanfares making use of the interval of the major second to harden their harmonies—but these are also fingerprints we associate with the mature Mathias. For the record, both these concertos precede other recorded concertos by the composer: those for harp, clarinet, and the third for piano (Lyrita), and the Oboe Concerto (Nimbus).
Mark Bebbington has made several fine discs of little-known English music and this is one of the best. He is sensitive to all the technical and interpretive demands of these highly contrasting composers. George Vass and the Ulster Orchestra provide immaculate support, and the recording is clear and well balanced. Highly recommended.
FANFARE: Phillip Scott
I first came across Ralph Vaughan Williams ‘Fantasia’ for piano and orchestra whilst carefully studying the 1996 imprint of Michael Kennedy’s invaluable ‘A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams’. It was one of many pieces that were hidden from view and were likely to remain so due to an embargo on works that the composer had withdrawn or laid aside around the end of the Great War. These included
The Garden of Prosperine, the
Heroic Elegy, the
Bucolic Suite and the present
Fantasia (Fantasy). They were works that I imagined I would never hear. Fortunately Ursula Vaughan Williams lifted the embargo and in recent years a number of these compositions have been recorded. Each time I have listened to one of these re-discovered pieces I have felt that the musical world has been cheated of a great piece of music for such a long time. This is the case with the present
Fantasy. It may not be one of the composer’s masterpieces, but it is certainly a work with which the listener can do business.
This twenty-one minute score was originally begun in October 1896 and was finally completed on 9 February 1902. It was subsequently revised in 1904. Since then it has lain in the British Library. This
Fantasy (Kennedy refers to Fantasia) is regarded as a ‘student’ piece by critics, however it must be realised that RVW continued studying until relatively late in life. His sojourn with Ravel was during 1907/08 when the composer was thirty-five years old! The present work was begun when he was 24 years old and finished when he was 32. So it is hardly a neophyte’s ’prentice piece.
For many listeners RVW is not normally associated with the pianoforte. To be true he made use of it in his
Double Piano Concerto and in
Fantasia on the Old 104
Psalm Tune. Both of these works have their enthusiasts and have been reappraised in recent years. However, there are only a handful of solo piano works, not a few of which are arrangements of other works or are teaching pieces.
The form of the
Fantasy is in one movement of six sections with an overall structure of slow-fast-slow. Without perusing the score it is hard to say how idiomatic the solo part is: how well it fits under the pianist’s hands. However the impression is that it has all the hallmarks of a ‘romantic concerto’.
Many listeners will play ‘spot the influence’. And it is not hard to hear all sorts of things going on in this work. Certainly Brahms and Grieg are never too far from the second section. Rob Barnett at MusicWeb International has identified a mood of orthodox chant: I felt that Mussorgsky’s
Pictures at an Exhibition was recalled. Liszt is amongst the exemplars. However, this is no stitching together of other composer’s music. Vaughan Williams has created a valid work that reflects the times in which it was written and possibly the fact that he had studied with Stanford and latterly Max Bruch. Finally, there are moments when the ‘real’ RVW stands revealed and we hear intimations of
Job (is it my imagination?) and the later symphonies. It is this, more than anything that makes the
Fantasy such an important work to have on disc.
William Mathias has been reasonably well-served with recordings. Just a quick glance at the Arkiv catalogue reveals some 77 discs dedicated to, or featuring music by, the composer. However there are a number of critical works missing from these listings. For example I believe that there is no recording of the Concerto for Orchestra,
Litanies and the
Holiday Overture. The present CD fills in an important gap with the early Piano Concerto No.1 which dates from 1955 and the Second Concerto from some five years later. Lyrita have already presented the Third Concerto on SRCD325.
Dr Rhiannon Mathias has noted that her father ‘always held a fascination’ for the concerto form. Apart from the piano concertos, there are ‘one each for flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, horn, organ, harp and harpsichord’ in the composer’s catalogue as well as a couple of early concertos written when in his teens.
The Piano Concerto No.1 seems to me a very confident and well-wrought work for a nineteen year old student at Aberystwyth University, although it is in no way precocious. Apparently, the work seriously impressed Edmund Rubbra, who was the external examiner. The work was premiered in London on 19 May 1957. After a few more performances it was withdrawn.
The concerto is written three well-balanced movements. The Guardian critic of this present CD rightly points out that this work is ‘angular’ in its effect. However this is not the whole story: the slow movement contains ‘nocturnal’ music that is particularly reflective and beautiful. However, much of the concerto does nod to Bartók and Prokofiev although this is presented with many of the fingerprints that were to dominate much of Mathias music over the next thirty-five years. For example, we hear sharp harmonies and syncopated rhythmic figures and the playing of the main themes together rather than separately. The piano part has been described as ‘exhilarating’ and this mood is well reflected in Mark Bebbington’s interpretation of the work. The score for this recording was prepared and edited by Dr Rhiannon Mathias.
From the ‘cool’ opening bars of the Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 13 we are in a different world to the earlier piece. This is a lyrical work that is suffused with poetry. Much of the opening movement is reflective and perhaps even tentative in its exploration of the two main themes. However there are moments of tension and even angst in these pages.
Mathias has added a ‘scherzo’ in all but name. In fact, it is presented as a ‘danse infernale’ which promotes music of ‘ferocious energy’ that utilises ‘brittle and rhythmically alert’ themes and harmonies. This is in complete contrast to the typically gentle first movement.
The ‘lento’ is the heart of the work and has an improvisatory feel to much of the proceedings. That said there is a structure to this movement that references a theme from the first movement, and gradually leads the music to a ‘nobilmente’ climax before a brief link passage leads to the concluding ‘rondo.’ This is Mathias dance-music at its best: from the initial solo piano statement of the main theme to the concluding riot of sound this music impresses. The composer makes use of themes from earlier movements and this gives the ‘rondo’ a sense of unity and purpose.
This is a work that is difficult to tie down for influences: I have detected Malcolm Arnold and Michael Tippett, but the truth is that this is William Mathias’s own unique sound-world at its best. It is hard to see why this concerto is not so much more popular and regularly played.
The work was commissioned by the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain, and was duly given its first performance at the 1961 Llandaff Festival.
It almost goes without saying that Mark Bebbington’s playing is superb throughout the entire disc. Bebbington has done so much for British music in recent years, with his cycles of music by John Ireland and Frank Bridge, the Dale and Hurlstone Sonatas and the Ferguson and Bax piano concertos. In the present disc the playing of these three very different works call for a wide range of interpretation and technical styles. These have been dealt with admirably and suggest a huge sympathy towards, and understanding of, these works.
As usual with SOMM recordings, everything is ‘done decently and in order’: the sound reproduction is first, the cover painting by James Hamilton Hay (1874-1916), the sleeve-notes, the background preparation of the scores by Dr Graham Parlett and Dr Rhiannon Mathias. It all adds up to an excellent production.
It seems redundant to say that I recommend this CD! Every RVW enthusiast will demand a copy for the World Premiere Recording of the
Fantasy. I guess that fewer listeners will be Mathias fans - however, they ought to be! - but these two works, again premiere recordings, are important additions to the catalogue of British (Welsh) piano concertos. For fans of William Mathias they are essential: for newcomers to his music they are a fine introduction to a great composer who has a style that is largely all his own.
-- John France, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Piano Concerto No. 1 by William Mathias
Mark Bebbington (Piano)
Venue: Ulster Hall, Ulster
Length: 24 Minutes 20 Secs.
Piano Concerto No. 2 by William Mathias
Mark Bebbington (Piano)
Venue: Ulster Hall, Ulster
Length: 23 Minutes 37 Secs.
Fantasia for piano and orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Mark Bebbington (Piano)
Venue: Ulster Hall, Ulster
Length: 21 Minutes 23 Secs.
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