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on 23 December 2011
William Mathias was one of a remarkable group of Welsh composers (including Daniel Jones, Alun Hoddinott and Grace Williams)active during the second half of the last century. Sadly, he died in his late fifties but left a substantial body of work. His music is tonal and has a clarity of line with light orchestral textures which render it highly accessible and enjoyable.

The first piano concerto is a fine work for such a young man. The piano writing is lean with a refreshing absence of octaves so beloved of the late romantics and the orchestral support is likewise transparent and unfussy. Every note counts. The fast, outer movements are rhythmic with inventive use of syncopation. The central slow movement is rather beautiful with, I felt, strong echoes of Bartok's nocturnal music and thought there was one direct quote.

The second concerto is equally enjoyable but is in four movements. The beginning of the first one strongly reminded me of Tippett's Midsummer Marriage but Mathias soon bends the material to his own ends.

Vaughan Williams Fantasy for piano and orchestra (1896-1902) is his first known orchestral work and joins a clutch of pieces from his early years which have now been recorded, filling in the gaps of the crucial decade until the Sea Symphony of 1909 and the Tallis Fantasia of 1910. All these works show Vaughan Williams as an accomplished composer in the technical sense but the strikingly original voice had yet to appear. With hindsight, one can see glimpses of the mature artist but the crucial elements - English folk song, Tudor hymnody and the period of study with Ravel - were still missing.

The Fantasy is no masterpiece but is enjoyable if a little anonymous. The Brahmsian piano writing is nevertheless convincing, and the opening of the piece, with the repeated loud, orchestral chords followed by a zig-zag descending piano phrase, is arresting. This is followed by a grave, rather noble hymn-like theme which made me think of The Pilgrim's Progress of decades later. These materials seem to be the basis for the rest of the composition which is in six sections, defined by tempo.

Mark Bebbington, a great promoter of British piano music, gives excellent performances, well supported by George Vass and the Ulster Orchestra. The CD is well recorded and presented.
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VINE VOICEon 14 November 2011
This new recording on the Somm label is an important release, presenting world premiere recordings of both Mathias's Piano Concerto No.1- his Opus 2- and Vaughan Williams' early Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra.
Whilst much play will be made of the Vaughan Williams, both the Mathias Concertos on this CD reveal themselves to be substantial and engaging works which deserve a better fate than to be sidelined in favour of the usual warhorses.
The first piano concerto was Mathias's graduation piece, and must have made a considerable impact on the examiners: It's possible to detect the astringent brightness of Bartok, but the piece has a quality all of its own- original and fresh.
The second concerto has had a (relatively) more successful performance history, and though it is certainly more melodic and immediately accessible than its predecessor, it does not provide an easy ride for the soloist and is anything but anodyne. I found myself occasionally thinking of Tippett's Dances from the Midsummer Marriage through some of the composer's figurations, and dance is certainly a recurring theme of Mathias's music. This is optimist and joyous music, with a satisfying shape and texture.
The strangest beast on this disc is probably the Vaughan Williams Fantasy: here we have a different side to RVW's pianism. Those who knocked the Piano Concerto for its percussive style would have found this in many ways more traditional- a one movement concerto in all but name- which has rather more of the folk-led melodism and less of the deliberately hard driven "modernism" of the concerto. However this is not to say that the piece lacks technical bravura or gives an easy answer. The booklet notes point to a fascination with Delius's Piano Concerto, and it is true that the declamatory piano re-iteration of the second subject does inhabit much the same sound-world. If anything, Vaughan Williams tries a little too hard to fit in as many aspects of piano technique as he can, but this does not detract from the obvious merits of the work.
All three pieces get an excellent showcase in the full-throated pianism of Mark Bebbington, and the committed and accomplished playing of the Ulster Orchestra under George Vass. The recording achieves a natural and unforced balance between soloist and orchestra. Recommended listening.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 29 November 2011
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.
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on 23 June 2013
I enjoyed the Vaughan Williams concerto but the first of the other two was a bit of a pianistic rant but worth a listen nevertheless.
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on 7 November 2012
Like lots of others, I was interested in this previously unheard concertante work by Vaughan Williams, but to be honest I didn't think it really amounted to much. Of course it could have showed us what VW was going to develope into, but again I just found even this aspect to be not that interesting. Not a lost rediscoverd masterpiece by one of the greatest ever composers in my opinion and even the piano writing sounds rather un pianistic.
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