William Mathias (1934-1992) must be one of the most underappreciated great Welsh composers. A child prodigy born into a family of musicians, he started playing piano at the age of three and first composed music at the age of five. Over a life of only 57 years, Mathias left huge amounts of pieces, written with his unique and imaginative touch, on the Anglican choral tradition. He composed in almost every genre including three symphonies, numerous concertos as well as chamber and instrumental works. Throughout the different genres, Welsh flavors, as well as influences of Stravinsky, Bartók, Tippett and Gershwin are felt. Joyful choral compositions were not part of singers’ common repertoire until conductor Graham Walker joined forces with St John’s Voices and the Gentlemen of St John’s for this first recording dedicated to the memory of the creative work of William Mathias. The CD was made in March 2019 at the College Chapel and in the year 2020 reached the hearts of many as it climbed to the No 10 spot in the Official UK Charts Specialist Classical Chart Top 30.
Graham Walker admits having a special connection with the music of Mathias which encouraged him to cherish the legacy of the composer on this recording. Walker remembers his privileged meeting with the composer in Bangor in 1998 when the former was only a ten-year-old chorister at St John’s College, Cambridge. A few years later, in the early 2000s, Walker was instantly charmed by the sound of Mathias’ Learsongs.
The effect on the conductor was so strong that even while he was reading The Owl and the Pussycat to his children, he would automatically hear Mathias’ melody orbiting in his thoughts. The choristers of St John’s Voices also felt enchanted and found Mathias’ music hugely enjoyable to sing. No surprise, their first recording is inseparably bound to the creativity of great Welsh composer.
The CD presents a wide variety of memorable and never previously recorded compositions. Listeners are immersed in familiar magic of sacred sound in A May Magnificat and Jesus College Canticles and introduced to th charming secular Learsongs (1988) and Riddles (1987).
In this set of serious and entertaining music, each moment of the CD truly captivates and draws further. Riddles and Learsongs for SATB choir (St John’s Voices), piano (Glen Dempsey, Aïda Lahlou, Marie-Noëlle Kendall), bells (David Ellis) and close-harmony sextet (The Gentlemen of St John’s), are stories full of color and imagination. Thanks to the recording’s excellent quality, one can understand every word of them. Graham Walker fluently leads the engrossing dialog between The Gentlemen of St John’s, who set the riddles, and St John’s Voices, who are looking for the answers.
The interaction, emphasizing antiphonal register effects, continues in Learsongs – five poems by Edward Lear (1812-1888) set for SA chorus and piano duet.
William Mathias’ mastery of organ writing is especially evident in sacred pieces, filled with rich melodic invention, lively rhythms and technical foundations based on tonal harmonies. Even though they are easy to listen to, these pieces are hard to perform, and the main challenge was disposed of by organists Hugh Crook and Shanna Hart.
The new yet authentic touch of William Mathias’ choral music is the true gift the St John’s Voices and the Gentlemen of St John’s have brought to the ears of the modern listener.