(on original release in 1995)
With masterful and intense performances recorded in vividly immediate sound, William Mathias’s three string quartets, written between 1967 and 1986, could hardly make a more powerful impression. In many ways the first of the three is the most ambitious, direct and pithy in its arguments over a single movement span lasting a full 20 minutes. Mathias in his mid-thirties had already established his distinctive idiom, but this marked a turning point in his development in its mode of argument. In this work he adopts a less traditional structure, using sharply conceived motifs rather as Stravinsky does in his Symphony of Wind Instruments. Helped by a dedicated performance from the young players of the Medea Quartet, the cogency of argument is never for a moment in doubt.

With occasional passing echoes of the quartets of Britten and Tippett, one might describe this as music by a composer who has lived with and thoroughly digested the Bartók quartets. Direct echoes are only incidental – one or two motifs remind me of Bartók’s Fifth in particular – but as in Bartok there is a consistent tautness, with disparate ideas compellingly brought together. After the measured and intense first statement of material, the impulse grows much faster (track1, 8’25”) in what might be regarded as a comparably large-scale development. That leads to the return of the main material (13’40”) and a beautiful coda, which in a poignant violin entry on high harmonics brings a distant echo of Bartok’s Second (17’30”).

The Second Quartet, dating from 1980-81, was written as a BBC commission for the Gabrieli Quartet. In each of its four compact movements, Mathias echoes medieval music in different ways, using drone basses and pedal points in support of material with a modal tinge. Echoes of Chanson and Minelied are heard, as he puts himself, “through an aural prism”. The result is stylistically as individual as the First Quartet, never sounding merely derivative. The Third Quartet, dating from 1986,brings together elements of both earlier works. The first movement, Allegro moderato e flessible, after a deceptively light opening develops into a taut, large-scale structure comparable to the Quartet No.1. The Lento slow movement brings no relaxation in easy lyricism, but rather a jagged intensity, again with distant echoes of the close of Bartók’s Second. The finale alternates fugato with scherzando writing, leading after a corporate cadenza to a powerful unison and a final crisp cut-off.

That the three quartets in sequence make such an involving experience is in fair measure due to the quality of the playing by the young Medea Quartet, formed as recently as 1991 at the Royal Academy of Music, and already a very accomplished group, both brilliant technically and deeply expressive. With David Lefeber as producer and engineer, the Metier sound is first-rate too with superb presence and atmosphere.

—Edward Greenfield