Musical Tributes to Dylan Thomas from Stravinsky and Burtch

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Jones, Hoddinott, Burtch, Stravinsky, Copland – Dylan Thomas Centenary ConcertRobin Tritschler (tenor), Robert Plane (clarinet), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, /Tecwyn Evans (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 5.5.2014 (PCG)

Daniel Jones – Dance Fantasy (1976)
Alun Hoddinott – Clarinet Concerto No 1, Op.3 (1950)
Mervyn Burtch – Four Portraits of Dylan (2014)
Igor Stravinsky – In memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954)
Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring: Suite (1945)


It was entirely appropriate to begin this concert commemorating the centenary of the birth of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas with music by his friend and drinking companion Daniel Jones, who apart from his career as a composer was also responsible for putting into performable shape the broadcast play Under Milk Wood after the poet’s death. It might however have seemed more fitting to give us the work which Daniel Jones specifically wrote about his friend, his Fourth Symphony with its subtitle In memoriam Dylan Thomas which Jones wrote in 1954. (We really need a new recording of this work to replace Sir Charles Groves’s workmanlike but uninspiring 1973 LP account, which has been released on CD by Lyrita.) Nonetheless the Jones Dance Fantasy made a nicely upbeat opening to the concert, one of his most immediately approachable works full of the high spirits that Jones and Thomas shared on many of their drinking sprees in Swansea and elsewhere. The orchestra clearly thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

The style of Hoddinott’s neo-classical First Clarinet Concerto is hardly typical of the composer’s mature output, and indeed Hoddinott himself described it as an “apprentice work” – but the playing of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was certainly an improvement on that of the LSO on Gervase de Peyer’s 1972 recording (now also available on a Lyrita CD) and the work sounded more effective in consequence. Robert Plane, the soloist here, has also recorded the concerto with the Welsh Chamber Orchestra for the Metronome label; and his performance showed empathy with the music especially in the melancholy slow movement which plumbed emotional depths rare in Hoddinott’s other music. The final Burlesca, with its unusual and seemingly self-contradictory tempo marking Allegro piacevole, was like a fleeting will-of-the-wisp under Plane’s perky fingers.

When Hoddinott’s final opera Tower was first reviewed (not altogether favourably) in the pages of Opera magazine, the same issue contained an ecstatic review of a Canadian performance of an opera by Hoddinott’s exact contemporary Mervyn Burtch. But this seems to have led to no further interest in Burtch’s music in his homeland, and it was astounding to discover that this was the first fully professional performance of any of the composer’s orchestral music since the BBC gave his Trumpet Concertino over forty years ago; and that the work has been commissioned not by the BBC (as surely would have been the case in any other country) but by the enterprising Ty Cerdd, the Music Centre for Wales. Ty Cerdd are proposing to underwrite the release of a series of Welsh works over the next few years, and one hopes that they will be similarly exploratory in their sponsorship of new music. Burtch’s Four portraits of Dylan displayed a superlative command of the orchestra, and the first movement with plenty of eccentric dance-like rhythms was handled confidently by the players. In the second movement depicting the discourse in the Kardomah Café in Swansea the rhythms were even more quirky, but the central melody over a funereal beat hinted at something deeper and the double xylophone passage in the coda was positively violent. The third movement, depicting the boathouse at Laugharne had a Prokofiev-like insouciance contrasted with a more menacing undertow like a rising sea swell; this was the most extended movement, with the final string section sounding like a benediction with its alternating series of Vaughan Williams-like chords quite devoid of the sense of despair in the superficially similar ending of the latter’s Sixth Symphony. The finale, Brown’s Hotel, was a rollicking drunken outburst with its aggression tempered by good humour. The performance was simply superlative.

After the interval we heard Stravinsky’s In memoriam Dylan Thomas, an inevitable inclusion in the programme but not one of the most inspiring to tributes to the poet. There is a serious dichotomy between music and words, with Stravinsky’s fallible sense of English (and Welsh) prosody not helped by the difficulty Robin Tritschler experienced in getting the words across. His mezza voce in the words “dying of the light” was exquisite, but the sense of protest and despair in the poem is not realised in music which ultimately leaves this listener at any rate obstinately unmoved.

The inclusion in the programme of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, explained somewhat ingenuously in Peter Reynold’s notes as a “reminder that Dylan Thomas spent much time in America”, seemed an odd choice. Perhaps Thomas’s American connections might have been better demonstrated by a performance of John Corigliano’s Poem in October from his Dylan Thomas Trilogy, which would also have represented the continuing influence that Thomas continues to exert on composers. In the ballet suite Copland’s expansion of his original scoring for thirteen instruments sometimes underlines the parallels with later American musicals such as Oklahoma! (as well as the almost literal quotation from Holst’s Jupiter) which are less evident in the chamber version; nor was the performance entirely impeccable in rhythm or intonation. Nonetheless the performance was enjoyable, and both conductor and orchestra clearly had a fine old time.

The concert was broadcast live, but remains available on the BBC i-player for the next seven days. Readers should make every effort to hear Mervyn Burtch’s Four Portraits while the relay remains available.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

2 thoughts on “Musical Tributes to Dylan Thomas from Stravinsky and Burtch”

  1. OK OK OK we understand, you don’t like Alun Hoddinott’s music. A lot of us do, so kindly stop the catty comments about this composer.

  2. I obviously can’t win. I thought I was actually being quite enthusiastic about Robert Plane’s performance of the Hoddinott Clarinet Concerto. I find it one of his most approachable works, and the slow movement is something quite special in his output. And yes, although it is an “apprentice work”, as Hoddinott himself stated, it is none the worse for that. Hoddinott did write some similarly emotional music later – there are some wonderful passages in The Beach of Falesa, for example – but such moments became rarer.

    My observations on the critical reception accorded to Hoddinott’s opera Tower were purely factual, and were occasioned by the fact that the composer’s exact contemporary Mervyn Burtch has continued to be neglected even after the coincidence of a review in Opera magazine which give a glowing reception to his opera performed at around the same time and reviewed in the same issue. I still consider the neglect of Burtch’s music to be scandalous, and so clearly did the critics of Opera magazine at the time.

    The use of the term ‘catty’ about my review echoes a similar complaint I received from an earlier correspondent. Clearly Hoddinott has his admirers. But at this distance of time we can surely afford to be more objective about his music, and seek to explain why since his death – apart from some more popular works such as the Welsh Dances – his music has not been performed as much as – say – that of William Mathias or even Daniel Jones.


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