This recent Somm recording affords us an opportunity to hear three world premieres of British works for piano and orchestra: the Vaughan Williams "Fantasy", and the first two piano concerti by the Welsh composer William Mathias.
RVW's Fantasia (despite its title, a substantial work in excess of 20 minutes) is an early work (1896-1902) whose release has been made possible only because the composer's late widow, Ursula, shortly before her death, decided to lift a ban on performances of works withdrawn prior to the First World War. Although not vintage Vaughan Williams, there is enough about this piece, as in others written around this time, to alert us to an emerging major talent, and the openeing bars exhibit that same nobility we find in many of the composer's mature works. After an imposing introduction, the work gets under way with a slow, hymn-like theme in the orchestra, whose modal touches and blazing brass statements are, again, reminiscent of the composer's maturity. RVW is supposed not to have had a particular affinity with the piano, but he shows a sure touch in his handling of the instrument here. The music passes through several contrasting phases, restrained and impassioned by turns until, in the final bars, the hymn-like theme returns full-throttle.
Mathias' Piano Concerto No.1 was written when he was 20 years old, and still a student, but already contains what the composer's daughter Rhiannon describes as his "musical fngerprints - in particular, acerbic harmonies and syncopated rhythms". The first movement begins brightly on the piano, initiating an interplay between this opening theme and a more lyrical second one, and leading finally to a superimposition of one upon the other.
In the slow movement, after a short string introduction, a long, contemplative piano solo carries the argument forward before a restatement of the string theme. The music becomes more impassioned, with interjections from the brass. There is an animated climax before the music subsides to a mysterious close. The finale is full of rhythm and energy, hurrying the work on to a brief, throbbing march and exciting piano passagework before the final crescendo and abrupt close.
The Piano Concerto No.2, premiered in 1961, is more lyrical overall. The first movement begins with delicate figurations in the woodwinds, echoed by the piano, but these then alternate with brisker, dance-like rhythms. The short allegro second movement is full of crisp, driving rhythms, giving an impression of boundless energy. The reflective Lento shares some of its ideas with the first movement, but is different in mood. The strings develop a yearning theme which leads to a meditative statement for solo piano. The music then builds to a climax which leads directly into a fluid introduction to the Finale. Again, dance rhythms are much in evidence, and there are some delicate exchanges between piano and light percussion before the pace picks up once more, and the music drives towards its exuberant and dynamic conclusion.
Mark Bebbington, the soloist, plays splendidly throughout, receiving sterling support from the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by George Vass.