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John France
MusicWeb International, September 2011

There is certainly urgency about this music which is clear from the very first downward phrase from the piano. This opening movement contrasts an angular theme with one that is considerably more ‘melodic and flowing’. This is reflective and moving music: however, it is cast away by the ‘spiky’ tune before coming to an aggressive and finally enigmatic conclusion. The Lento has been described as a ‘long and lyrical berceuse’. This is music that is approachable and satisfying. On the other hand the final ‘dance’ movement is another story. This is in ‘typical’ Mathias style as seen in a number of his organ works. However it does seem to lack consistency with the preceding two movements.

Interestingly, a quotation from Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony has been detected in the finale—somewhat ‘irrelevant’ one reviewer thought. It would be interesting to understand the reason for this gesture.

The Second Violin Sonata was commissioned by the Guild for the Promotion of Welsh Music. It was to celebrate the composer’s fiftieth birthday in 1984. The work was duly performed at the Swansea Festival on 16 October that year with Erich Gruenberg and John McCabe.

Mathias has made use of ‘blocks’ of musical material in this Sonata which he had derived from the works of Tippett and Stravinsky. This is used to create a ‘sonata’-like framework which allows for dialogue and self-reference throughout. The sound-world of this piece has moved on from ‘melody’ as such and depends to a large extent on the manipulation of motifs. It has been suggested that Mathias has used a transposed version of Shostakovich’s DSCH motive ‘presumably as an act of homage’. The second movement corresponds to a ‘scherzo’ but in reality this is more of a toccata with its rapid figuration testing the violinist’s technique. The slow movement is intense and is reminiscent of a funeral march. The finale is imposing, economical and is in the form of a ‘rondo’. I have not studied the score, but one feels that material used earlier in the work is being revisited. The slow episodes are introverted and quite beautiful. The conclusion of the movement and of the work is a riot of sound: there may even be a little hint of Iberia in these pages!

I believe that this Sonata may not impress the listener on a first hearing. But stick with it. There is much striking music in these pages that is worthy of the composer at his best.

The CD liner-notes by Geraint Lewis are excellent. He has contributed a great deal to the periodical literature about Mathias and has written the Grove entry. I would have liked a little more analysis of the 1952 Sonata—most of the notes deal with the compositional and performance history.

Finally the performances of these three Sonatas are excellent. There is a commitment from Sara Trickey and Iwan Llewelyn-Jones that understands and presents Mathias’s music in the best possible manner. This recording is likely to become definitive for many years to come.

Robert Maxham
Fanfare, September 2011

Violinist Sara Trickey and pianist Iwan Llewelyn-Jones have paired the Welsh composer William Mathias’s two canonical violin sonatas with an early work that, according to Geraint Lewis’s notes, Mathias himself resolutely withheld from publication. But the composer’s estate granted permission for its inclusion on this recording, so listeners will enjoy what will perhaps be a unique opportunity to hear this bit of juvenilia.

The program begins with the First Violin Sonata, op. 15, the premiere of which the notes date to 1962. Despite its brash opening and its spiky dissonances, the 15-odd-minute, three-movement sonata remains accessible, firmly situated in the penumbra of tonality and depending for its effect on stark rhythmic and melodic contrasts. Trickey and Llewelyn-Jones explore these contrasts effectively in the first movement; they’re appropriately bracing in the jagged passages and suggestive in the lyrical ones. They take advantage of the opportunities the plaintive and at times haunting second movement provides for introspection and bring the movement to a sensitive and magical conclusion. After the brief slow introduction, they give a rhythmically infectious performance of the Stravinsky-like finale, with its jaunty repetitions of short motives.

The four-movement and a bit longer Second Sonata, according to the notes, received its premiere in 1984, when the composer had reached the age of 50 (the Guild for the Promotion of Welsh Music commissioned the work for that birthday). Its first movement combines its dissimilar elements in proportions similar to those of the First Sonata’s corresponding movement, except perhaps for the inclusion of motoric passages in the piano. The second movement takes the form of a brusque, two-odd-minute scherzo (similar but more biting than that in Serge Prokofiev’s Second Violin Sonata), and the duo revels in its rhythmic energy. The slow movement begins with a passage with the violin on the G string in which Trickey’s tone approaches a rich viola-like huskiness; the passage consists largely of an extended and somewhat dour rumination. Rhythmic elements return to the fore in the finale, which the performers turn into a virtuosic romp, which nevertheless, like most of the other movements, veers suddenly off into reflection.

If, as the notes suggest, Mathias declined on several occasions to publish the sonata from 1952, the argument that it reveals a stage in his early development, together with the effect of the work itself in a private performance given before the recording took place, seems a natural one based on Trickey’s and Llewelyn-Jones’s convincing advocacy. The first of the three movements, Impetuoso, remains firmly within the traditional harmonic system, but its rhythmic vitality and moving lyrical outpourings foreshadow what would come. Perhaps the work’s tonality influenced the composer to omit it from a collection of his complete works; if so, in the new environment, more tolerant of consonance and harmonic centers, he might have made a different decision. The second movement soars without the slightest affectation of sentiment, in the music or in the performance; and the finale includes a dogged marchlike passage that in particular looks forward to the later works.

Naxos’s engineers have created a more vivid presence for Trickey and Llewelyn-Jones than Koch’s did for violinist Michael Davis and pianist Nelson Harper, who included Mathias’s two numbered violin sonatas in their collection of the composer’s chamber works on 3-7326-2 H1 (Fanfare 20:3); in fact, Trickey’s performances also seem closer up, magnifying the works’ plentiful detail and making each of their many gestures with the boldness of a pugilist—and by comparison, some of Davis’s expressivity seems relatively muted. (Still, Naxos’s engineers have balanced the violin and piano with neither particularly far in the foreground.) The addition of the early sonata should make Naxos’s program irresistible to those interested in investigating Mathias’s engaging, spring-fresh œuvre, but it should easily capture and hold the attention of general listeners as well. Stodgy it’s not, but, in fact, a captivating recital, strongly recommended.

Mark L Lehman
American Record Guide, July 2011

William Mathias (1934–92) is a Welsh composer who wrote in a modern but tradition-based idiom with affinities to Britten and Walton as well as such continentals as Prokofieff, Stravinsky, and Bartok. His music is beautifully crafted and offers sharply-profiled themes, enriched-but-tonally anchored harmonies, transparent textures, vivid colors, vital (and often syncopated) rhythms, strong forward drive, clear formal logic, and immediate emotional appeal. Mathias quickly gained popularity in England, and though he is less often heard elsewhere, most audiences respond to him readily when they come across his works in concert or on records. I certainly do. There are many recordings, ranging from symphonies (three of them), many concertos, and much vocal music to a considerable body of chamber music including solo sonatas, duos, trios, quartets, and more.

The two mature violin sonatas date from 1962 and 1984. Both are marvelous works that instantly grab the listener with bold, memorable ideas charged with dramatic urgency and nervous excitement. These are nicely played off against slower lyrical ideas that shimmer with sensuous, evocative mystery. Sara Trickey and Iwan Llewelyn-Jones play Mathias with muscular precision and verve, and are captured in appropriately bright, ultra-clear sonics that put a dazzling shine on his ringing, iridescent harmonies. As a bonus they add the first-ever recording of an early violin sonata that dates from 1952 when Mathias was still a teenager. The composer considered it immature and rejected the idea of its publication. The style is (for Mathias) somewhat old-fashioned and romantic, and clearly indebted to Howells, Ireland, Bax, and Bridge; in addition there are a few iffy spots where one wonders if the structural proportions are in perfect balance. But still, this is a distinguished and considerable sonata (with a nifty fugue in the finale) that many a fully formed composer would be happy to acknowledge, and I’ve no doubt that many will admire and enjoy hearing it, as I did.

Collectors may want to know that Mathias’s two mature sonatas are also on Koc…along with his First Piano Trio and some shorter pieces. That’s very well played but not nearly as vividly recorded as this new Naxos. The trio is well worth having, though, so dedicated fans of this composer (like me) will want both releases.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, June 2011

Most consider William Mathias (1934–1992) Wales’ most influential twentieth century musical figure. He was a revered educator and concert organizer, as well as a pianist, conductor and prolific composer. Equally at home writing sacred or secular music, we’ve already told you about his organ works...and symphonic dances...Now Naxos regales us with his three violin sonatas.

Of prime interest here will be the world premiere recording of an early sonata [tracks-8, 9 and 10] predating his two numbered ones. An amazingly accomplished three-movement work written in 1952, it’s hard to believe it came from the pen of a seventeen-year-old. The opening allegro is alternately impetuous and melodically romantic. A winsome contemplative andante follows, and then an inventive finale where one can imagine tolling bells and scurrying church mice.

The first sonata of 1961 [tracks-1, 2 and 3] is also in three movements, and begins with an attention-getting seven-note tone row on the piano. But this is not a serial work, and the mood soon becomes more lyrical as the movement ends somewhat impressionistically. The lento that’s next is a delicate rhapsody based on an engaging extended melody, which at one point [track-2, beginning at 02:25] sounds folk related.

The infectious dance-like finale is notable for a central idea [track-3, beginning at 01:10] not far removed from “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” in Debussy’s (1862–1918) Children’s Corner Suite (1906–08). With not a wasted note you’ll find this sonata exceptional for it’s lucidity.

The four-movement second sonata (1984) [tracks-4, 5, 6 and 7] is a grander, more virtuosic undertaking than the first, but that overriding sense of clarity characterizing the former remains. It begins with a five-note wake-up call (FW) on the violin that’s the thematic cell from which the whole sonata grows. The opening allegro is a dramatic study in contrasting motifs, while there’s a Slavic twitchiness about the following vivace reminiscent of Shostakovich (1906–1975).

Mathias once again uses FW as the introduction to the tragic adagio, which takes on the character of a funeral march. This slowly fades, and some whimsical passages for the violin segue directly into the final allegro. Here hyperactive outer sections recalling the second movement surround a slow haunting central episode. The sonata ends with a display of fireworks as the violin skyrockets into the blue.

One couldn’t ask for more technically accomplished, sensitive playing from the soloists featured here. Violinist Sara Trickey and pianist Iwan Llewelyn-Jones deliver impeccable performances that leave one hoping they’ll soon give us additional lesser known sonatas in need of resuscitation.

The recordings were made at Champs Hill, West Sussex, which is one of Britain’s finest small chamber music venues. Housed in this vibrant acoustic, the two instruments are projected across a relatively wide soundstage, which contributes all the more to the overall clarity of Mathias’ lean, no-nonsense scores. A silvery rather than silken violin and percussively well-rounded piano heighten the inherent poignancy of these sonatas.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2011

Born in Wales in 1934, William Mathias never looked for easy popular acclaim, and followed his own personal path of composition while spending much of his life teaching. He had studied composition with Lennox Berkeley at London’s Royal Academy of Music, and the piano with Peter Katin, adding to his career as a University lecturer many engagements either as pianist or conductor. As a composer he was prolific, his legacy numbering almost two hundred published scores in most genres. Stylistically he lived in the same world as Benjamin Britten, though he had his own view of tonality which at times led to long flowing melodies. He was twenty-eight when he completed his First Violin Sonata, a quite short work in three movements, the central Lento being quite beautiful and the finale a jerky jazzy number. Twenty-two years passed before the Second Sonata, a much longer score in four movements with just a passing hint of Bartok in the opening allegro robusto. The scherzo is spiky, but full of good humour, contrasting with the sad slow movement. In an abrupt change of mood the finale is full of vigour as it heads to a brilliant conclusion. The big surprise comes with the unnumbered Sonata from the eighteen-year-old Mathias. It had an element of French influence, its three movements having such a ready attraction you wonder where Mathias’s reputation would have stood had he been able to take this into his mature years. Maybe it did belong to a previous generation, but I commend it most fervently to your attention. The disc is performed by a duo well-known in Wales, and who in every way are admirable. Sara Trickey’s intonation is without blemish and Iwan Llewelyn-Jones a perfectly weighted pianist. Good sound quality.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group