REVIEWS:  metier msvcd 92005  Mathias: String Quartets

GRAMOPHONE: (on original release in 1995)
With masterful and intense performances recorded in vividly immediate sound, William Mathias's three string quartets, written between 1967 and 1986, could hardly make a more powerful impression. In many ways the first of the three is the most ambitious, direct and pithy in its arguments over a single movement span lasting a full 20 minutes. Mathias in his mid-thirties had already established his distinctive idiom, but this marked a turning point in his development in its mode of argument. In this work he adopts a less traditional structure, using sharply conceived motifs rather as Stravinsky does in his Symphony of Wind Instruments. Helped by a dedicated performance from the young players of the Medea Quartet, the cogency of argument is never for a moment in doubt.

With occasional passing echoes of the quartets of Britten and Tippett, one might describe this as music by a composer who has lived with and thoroughly digested the Bartók quartets. Direct echoes are only incidental - one or two motifs remind me of Bartók's Fifth in particular - but as in Bartok there is a consistent tautness, with disparate ideas compellingly brought together. After the measured and intense first statement of material, the impulse grows much faster (track1, 8'25") in what might be regarded as a comparably large-scale development. That leads to the return of the main material (13'40") and a beautiful coda, which in a poignant violin entry on high harmonics brings a distant echo of Bartok's Second (17'30").

The Second Quartet, dating from 1980-81, was written as a BBC commission for the Gabrieli Quartet. In each of its four compact movements, Mathias echoes medieval music in different ways, using drone basses and pedal points in support of material with a modal tinge. Echoes of Chanson and Minelied are heard, as he puts himself, "through an aural prism". The result is stylistically as individual as the First Quartet, never sounding merely derivative. The Third Quartet, dating from 1986,brings together elements of both earlier works. The first movement, Allegro moderato e flessible, after a deceptively light opening develops into a taut, large-scale structure comparable to the Quartet No.1. The Lento slow movement brings no relaxation in easy lyricism, but rather a jagged intensity, again with distant echoes of the close of Bartók's Second. The finale alternates fugato with scherzando writing, leading after a corporate cadenza to a powerful unison and a final crisp cut-off.

That the three quartets in sequence make such an involving experience is in fair measure due to the quality of the playing by the young Medea Quartet, formed as recently as 1991 at the Royal Academy of Music, and already a very accomplished group, both brilliant technically and deeply expressive. With David Lefeber as producer and engineer, the Metier sound is first-rate too with superb presence and atmosphere.
Edward Greenfield

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.

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.
Rob Barnett