United Kingdom Mealor, Mathias, Grace Williams, Glyn, Dafydd, Howards, St David’s Day Gala: Massed Children’s Choirs, BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Grant Llewellyn (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 1.3.2014 (PCG)
Paul Mealor – Celtic Prayers (first performance)
William Mathias – Anniversary Dances
Grace Williams – Fantasia on Welsh nursery tunes
Gareth Glyn – Caneunon Cariad: Gwlad y Gân
Einon Dafydd – Sing out loud!
Jeffrey Howard – A Welsh Celebration
This concert for St David’s Day was distinguished by the first performance of Celtic Prayers, a substantial cantata of over twenty minutes’ duration by Paul Mealor. The four movements draw respectively on words from Scottish, Welsh, Cornish and Irish sources, and the choral writing is very much in the gentle and slightly bruising style that we have come to associate with the composer, although some of the high-lying passages taxed the sopranos to their very limits. Intertwined with these choral sections are a number of Grainger-esque folk-dance episodes – a Scotch strathspey and reel, Cornish sea-shanties – and unfortunately these sounded rather over-balanced in the acoustic of St David’s Hall, with the chorus sometimes close to being drowned out. The work was originally intended to feature Gary Griffiths as solo baritone, but he was ill and the solo lines were re-allocated to the men of the chorus, which cannot have helped to secure the variety of tone the composer evidently wanted. And it also meant that the words, which for some quite unfathomable reason were not provided in the programme, were almost impossible to distinguish.
Indeed problems of balance between choirs and orchestra were a perennial feature of this concert. The presence of some 250 children’s voices in the choir stalls behind the stage meant that the BBC National Chorus of Wales had to be placed in the position on the main stage usually reserved for the percussion, with the result that the extended stage out into the auditorium gave a very strong presence to the orchestra. In both the works by Gareth Glyn the heavy use of brass meant that the melodies in the choirs were overwhelmed in loud passages, although Einon Dafydd’s short piece came across rather better.
Mathias’s Anniversary Dances also constitute a long work – nearly 25 minutes – and it has to be said that their repetitive nature sounded over-extended in this context. Mathias had an unfortunate habit of subconsciously imitating the sounds of other composers he had been listening to recently, and his opera The Servants in its final pages sounded very much like a section cut out from Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage. Unfortunately here, in a piece written a couple of years later, the opening and closing pages sounded so close to the opening of the Tippett opera as to be highly disturbing; and elsewhere one detected elements from Malcolm Arnold’s sets of dances. The slow Lento movement, a vision of “St David’s Cathedral in the mist”, brought some nicely judged sounds. But the real climax of the work came in the Andante cantabile towards the end, taking a melody that started out like an echo of Spanish ladies but developed it into an impassioned climax; but the sheer luxurious length of this passage threatened to over-balance the work as a whole.
Grace Williams’s Fantasy, a late substitute on the programme for other items intended to feature Gary Griffiths, sounded as though it could have done with a little more rehearsal; it is not an easy piece to play or balance, and sometimes things threatened to go awry. On the other hand, just before the National Anthem at the end, we were given a long-lost fanfare by Grace Williams which has only recently been re-discovered – and what a discovery it was! The harsh and sometimes barbaric sounds had nothing to do with Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, but they were thrilling and enjoyable in their own right. One longs to hear it more often.
Before that there had been an “audience sing-along” led by Grant Llewellyn in a Welsh dragon waistcoat which brought obvious echoes of the Last Night of the Proms; but Jeffrey Howard’s re-arrangement of some of the tunes meant that those members of the audience who wished to indulge in the Welsh passion for harmonisation were left somewhat at sea. And it is surely not necessary to add chromatics to Joseph Parry’s Myfanywy, whose somewhat surprisingly acerbic original harmonies have long been silently amended by the less conscientious Welsh choirs and certainly don’t stand in need of any further sentimentalisation.
The BBC programme supplied the audience with the texts for the “sing-along” but not for any of the other pieces; and the diction of the massed choirs was not sufficiently clear to make up for this. The capacity audience enjoyed themselves immensely.
Paul Corfield Godfrey