Folk-Roots and Composerly Sophistication from Sioned Williams

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Farkas, Finnissy, Beethoven, Stimpson, Guridi, Sadegi Konjani: Sioned Williams (harp), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 11.10.2013. (GPu)

Ferenc Farkas (1905-2000), Tre Pezzetti
Michael Finnissy (b.1946), Welsh Harp
Beethoven (1770-1827), Variations on A Swiss Air, WoO.64
Michael Stimpson (b.1948), Maisry
Jesus Guridi (1886-1961), Canciones par arpa del folk-lore VAsco
Amir Sadeghi Konjani (b.1983), Saakene Ravaan (Stillness Afloat)

In the course of a short piece in the November 2013 issue of the BBC Music Magazine, David Owen Norris writes of how “Fashion and educational politics have put folksongs on the back burner for the last 40 years. That is a pity: they are beautiful in themselves, but they’re also a profound repository of the experience of being English or Welsh or Scottish or Irish or French or whatever…”. And, of course, for many composers they have been a vivifying stimulus to creativity.

This excellent recital by Sioned Williams was a quiet but eloquent counterblast to the kinds of pressures exerted by the “fashion and educational politics” of which Norris writes, and a heartening re-affirmation of the creative energies implicit in the “profound repository” of folksong. Sioned Williams’s comments during her recital included the statement that she had been “brought up on hymns and folksongs” (a claim that many another Welsh musician might make too). Her intelligent empathy with the uses to which a number of writers for the harp had put folksong irradiated her playing throughout the recital. This programme was one of several devised and performed by Williams as part of a multifaceted project she calls ‘Sioned’s Spiralling Sixtieth’, launched after her sixtieth birthday on 1st July, 2013.

There are, I suspect, few harpists with a comparable knowledge of the repertoire for the instrument. As Principal Harp of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for some years, as Senior Fellow in Harp studies at Trinity College in London, and as a solo recitalist and chamber musician, she has explored most of her instrument’s possibilities. The list of works she has commissioned and premiered is long and extensive, including compositions by, amongst many others, David Graham-Ellis, Paul Patterson, Amir Tatreshipour, Robin Holloway, Adrian Williams, John Tavener, Michael Berkeley and Graham Fitkin. The programme Williams played on this occasion included one World premiere (Michael Finissy’s ‘Welsh Harp’) and two Welsh premieres (Amir Sadeghi Konjani’s ‘Saakeene Ravaan’ and Michael Stimpson’s ‘Maisry’).

If hearing it ‘blind’, I don’t imagine that many listeners would immediately identify the ‘Six variations on a Swiss Air’ as the work of Beethoven. Apart from anything else, Beethoven isn’t a composer one would readily associate  with the harp – unless perhaps one thinks in terms of the ‘Romanze’ from the incidental music for Leonore Prohaska (Wo0 90) and ‘Euterpe and Amphion’s duet’ from the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. These six ’Easy Variations’ were written around 1790, when Beethoven was 20 – that is, before a truly distinctive Beethovenian voice had been developed. The ‘Air’ in question was just 11 bars long, making use of the text ‘Es hät e Buur e Töchterli’, a song about a young man’s courtship of a farmer’s daughter, which is unsuccessful because her father thinks she is too young to marry. Beethoven apparently heard the air sung unaccompanied, although a harmonised version had been recently published in a collection of 1781, edited by J.F. Richardt and published in Berlin. Sioned Williams’s reading of the six variations, ranging from the andante first and the tranquillo fifth to the sixth (marked ‘con fuoco’) was consistently lucid and throughout played with a pleasing sense of shape and structure. I have heard recordings of the piano version of these Variations, but they never sounded as interesting satisfying as they did on this occasion, heard live and on the harp.

Where Michael Finnissy’s ‘Welsh Harp’ is concerned, Williams was returning closer to her own Celtic roots. Finnissy’s work makes use of an arrangement by John Thomas (1826-1913) – the Welsh harpist and composer who was Professor of Harp at the Royal College of Music and, from 1872, Harpist to Queen Victoria – of the Welsh folk song ‘Merch Megan’ (‘Megan’s Daughter’). Finnissy himself has described how “Thomas’s ‘transcription’ forms the basis of the work, sometimes in the distance, remembered in fragmentary fashion, perhaps glimpsed through a glass darkly, and always pondering the fragility and poignancy of human existence itself”. Finnissy’s music respects both the fragility and the complementary strength of the harp’s sound; his writing includes some passages of a decidedly modern turn (in terms of harp technique) and also much music which Thomas himself would, I suspect, have admired. Not afraid of silence, ‘Welsh Harp’ incorporates some resonantly meaningful silences. The piece as a whole could not, surely, have received finer and more persuasive first performance. Certainly Finnissy himself, who was sitting just in front of me, seemed delighted at Williams’s interpretation of his new work.

English folk music was the foundation for Michael Stimpson’s ‘Maisry’, based as it is on the folk-song ‘Lady Maisry’, a tune first collected in a Wiltshire Workhouse and most familiar as No.65A in the Child Ballads. The original melody doesn’t appear till relatively late in Stimpson’s piece, though those familiar with it might have recognised a retrograde version early in ‘Maisry’, followed by a fragmentary paraphrase of the melody. The original folk song, a tale of a girl who rejects various wooers approved of by her family, but becomes pregnant by another lover. Ashamed of her, her family burn her at the stake. In some versions her lover returns to find her dead and slaughters her brothers and her parents in an act of revenge before killing himself. Stimpson’s music is more interested in the musical structures of the melody and what might be done with them, than in the extreme emotions depicted in the song. The result is complex and subtle – and so was Sioned Williams’s playing of the piece.

Two other folk traditions were drawn on in the two other striking pieces in Williams’s programme – Jesus Guridi’s ‘Canciones para arpa del folk-lore Vasco’ and Amir Sadeghi Konjani’s ‘Saakeene Ravaan’ (‘Stillness Afloat’). Guridi’s six Basque songs are passionate works spanning a range of emotions, from the tender dignity of the first, ‘Nere maitea’, to the sadness of the fifth, ‘Zorabiatua naiz’, and incorporating both the shifting shades and energies of secular love in the playful but increasingly excited ‘Aritz adarean’ and the serene joy of religious devotion in the closing song, ‘Garizuma luzerik’. We were treated to a memorable and aptly colourful performance of these pieces, emotionally expressive but always disciplined. Hearing them made me want to explore more of Guridi’s music. The young Iranian composer Amir Sadeghi Konjani (born 1983) has studied (and taught) at Trinity College in London and at the California Institute of the Arts. ‘Saakeene ravan’ is less experimental and avant-garde than some of his work, though it isn’t merely traditional in any limiting or convention-bound sense. It makes use of a number of the dastgahs, which are the foundational elements of traditional Persian art music, being musical modes of a distinctive kind. Konjani’s piece used, for example, the meditative serenity of the nava as well as the dignified pathos of the homayun, the profound melancholy of the dashti and the compassionate shur. Without ever perverting the harp’s natural sound-world, Konjani managed, in passing, to evoke (or perhaps one should say ‘allude to’) such traditional Iranian instruments as the tar and the santour. Sioned Williams has given recitals in Iran and her familiarity with Iranian music was evident in her sensitive reading of Konjani’s work and its ambiguous sense of time.

Williams’ recital had begun with a performance of the ‘Tre Pezzetti’ by Ferenc Farkas. Interesting, and highly competent,  as Farkas’s pieces are, originally written for the Italian harpist Ada Sassoli, they didn’t make the most arresting start to a recital. I am not sure whether that was due to something in the music itself, to a failure of attention on my part (probably the most likely explanation) or even to a slightly inhibited quality in Williams’ playing. I don’t otherwise know this work by Farkas, but I have heard enough other works by him to know that he was a composer whose writing often fused native Hungarian materials (he collected folksongs in the 1930s) with what one might describe as a kind of neoclassical clarity of form and line. In this particular work, the fusion seemed somewhat drily correct, ‘academic’ in the limiting sense. But if I could not find this opening work especially exciting, everything that followed was very stimulating and rewarding. Few recitals are as intelligently designed as this one, with a thread that linked all the works without there ever being any danger of the connections between the works making them seem too similar one to another. Rather the common element of ‘folk’ sources actually served to bring out what was distinctive about each work and its composer. And, more than that, we had the chance to enjoy (in one of its homelands) the harp played with intelligence, sensitivity and brio. One could ask for little more.

Glyn Pursglove

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