Mathias Piano Concertos 1 & 2 and Vaughan Williams Fantasia [Mark Bebbington/George Vass; Somm]

0 of 5 stars

Piano Concerto No.1, Op.2 [edited by Rhiannon Mathias & Geraint Lewis]
Piano Concerto No.2, Op.13
Vaughan Williams
Fantasy [sic] for Piano and Orchestra [Manuscript edited by Graham Parlett]

Mark Bebbington (piano)

Ulster Orchestra
George Vass

Recorded 15 & 16 May 2011 in Ulster Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: September 2011
Duration: 71 minutes



William Mathias’s first two piano concertos are followed by Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra. Somm gives us the first recording of each and they benefit from the combined talents of Mark Bebbington, George Vass and the Ulster Orchestra.

Mathias (1934-92) composed three piano concertos. That those first heard respectively in 1957 and 1961 are only now being recorded is rather extraordinary. Mathias was a fine pianist and gave the premiere of his First Piano Concerto (composed in 1955). In a private run-through the work had impressed Edmund Rubbra. It’s an immediately likeable piece, the first of the three movements being strongly assertive and syncopated, later contrasted with more romantic material. The opening of the slow movement is rather Bartókian (specifically Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta), the piano richly musing on what has been presented, the orchestra sometimes a sinister presence to add tension to a heady if slow-burning dialogue. The finale is direct if not without its mysteries.

By the time of the Second Piano Concerto, Mathias had been studying composition with Lennox Berkeley and piano with Peter Katin (it was Katin who recorded Mathias’s Third Piano Concerto). The Second is a four-movement affair and is quite lovely in its lyricism; the opening could be described as Tippettesque, referencing to his own Piano Concerto or The Midsummer Marriage. Mathias’s music here is suggestive and transporting, the rhythms less punchy but vital, and some passages have a musical-box delicacy. A scintillating, sometimes-acerbic scherzo is placed second, the riposte to its uproar (there is some folksiness too) being a slow movement of initial intensity that subsides to leave the piano alone to ponder before all gather to a dramatic climax. The finale returns us to Tippettian orientations; Piano Sonata No.1 coming to mind during the soloist’s opening statement. This movement dances, not in a balletic sense, but there is lively propulsion, and an optimism that burgeons and takes the work to a festive conclusion.

The Fantasy (as it is entitled by Somm and in Michael Kennedy’s booklet note) by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) – though it is listed by its correct title, Fantasia, in Kennedy’s catalogue – is another of those early ‘lost’ works that have been reclaimed. Fantasia was begun in 1896 but not completed until 1902. Vaughan Williams then revised it twice in 1904. No performance ensued. As early as a minute in there is a wonderfully soulful passage for lower strings, something of a hymnal, that develops through brass and upper strings. It isn’t obviously by Vaughan Williams, but he’d be on the list; and if the piano-writing is rather Brahmsian (as in his Handel Variations) then the impact of the piece is no less striking. As befits its title, this is a work of diverse moods, 21 minutes in length, and if some of it is cliché-ridden and anonymous it is certainly worth hearing, partly because of who wrote it. After about eight minutes there is a poetic passage with a lovely clarinet solo that suggests Schumann; by contrast the closing bars suggest the closing credits of a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic are being run up the screen.

The performances from all concerned are splendid – Messrs Bebbington and Vass are seasoned practitioners of music’s worthwhile byways – and the recording is beautifully clear and truthfully balanced. A feather in Somm’s cap for this release.

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