The Organ

William Matthias: Complete Organ Music

Star recording:
William Matthias: Complete Organ Music
Richard Lea
Priory PRCD 870 [2xCD set]

This new double-CD set of the complete organ music by the Welsh composer William Mathias is very welcome, and should find a place in the collections of all organists and music-lovers who care about the 20th-century British repertoire for the instrument. Mathias’s untimely death from cancer in 1992, at the age of merely 57, removed a distinguished creative figure who was able to draw fresh inspiration from what might be termed traditional procedures but who was equally able to extend those aspects of ‘tradition’ into quite original expression. When one considers the deep faith Mathias held, his extraordinary ability as a keyboard player and his fluency in embracing various contemporary modes of expression and subsuming them into a consistent language, then one begins to understand that his organ music, far from being in any way purely parochial in its expression, has the inner life to become highly significant in terms of European organ music of the latter half of the 20th-century – Mathias adopting, quite naturally, a similar approach to the challenge as the fellow Celt Tournemire exhibited. As just one example, Mathias’s Antiphonies of 1982 is a staggeringly wide-ranging score, utilising the full range of the instrument in an utterly gripping manner. At the other extreme, the delightful Processional makes a suitably festive closing voluntary with a simple but subtly varied tune that can run unbidden around one’s mind for days after hearing it.

I was well aware that Mathias had composed a number of works for organ, but I have been quite surprised at the extent and range of it, as exemplified on these records. There are no fewer than seven large-scale works in this collection, alongside ten shorter ones, and it is interesting to hear the Gregorian chant Vexilla Regis Prodeunt, the traditional Welsh Hymn tune Braint and the traditional French (another Celtic connexion here) L’Homme armé sung in the appropriate languages by the Liverpool Welsh Choral, directed by Keith Orrell – melodies which are variously used by Mathias as the bases for separate works. In one instance, one can understandably be misled by the title of the Berceuse Op 95 no 3, in that it is not some relatively brief lullaby, but a full-scale 16-minute study. AH Claire, in his booklet notes, says the score ‘is a night piece, but it is more, it is a veritable nightmare of a piece!’ It is a work of extraordinarily expressive character. Some of this music is quite well-known – the Processional, Partita, Briant Variations, Invocations and Jubilate – and has been recorded before, sometimes more than once, but it is good to have Mathias’s complete output in such a handy form. Yet this is much more than mere convenience, the performances are all quiet brilliant and at times genuinely moving. Richard Lea delivers extremely well played accounts of this music throughout; Mathias was, for those unfamiliar with his art, an admirably genuine composer. I strongly recommend it to listeners who find gimmicks and temporary fashions hold few interests for them. For those who do know some of this music – who may possess the 1975 Oiseau-Lyre LP of eight of these pieces played by Christopher Herrick – the exceptional recording quality of Neil Collier on this new Priory set is a considerable bonus. This impressive set of eminently worthwhile music is very strongly recommended.

Robert Matthew-Walker