United Kingdom Hoddinott, Mathias, Grace Williams, Daniel Jones: .Llŷr Williams (piano), Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Grant Llewellyn (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 7.6.2014 (PCG)
Hoddinott – Overture: Jack Straw (1964)
Mathias – Piano Concerto No 2, Op.13 (1961)
Grace Williams – Fairest of Stars (1973)
Daniel Jones – Symphony No 10 (1981)
As part of their 2014 Conference Tŷ Cerdd, the Welsh Music Archive, promoted this concert featuring the work of four of the major Welsh composers of the twentieth century. Although the concert clashed with the Welsh National Opera performance of Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron next door at the Millennium Centre, there was a respectable attendance and the four works chosen were all relative novelties in the sense that they had not been heard for many years.
The concert opened with Hoddinott’s early overture Jack Straw, based on the life of a historical character from the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. As such it invited comparison with Alan Bush’s opera on the same subject Wat Tyler (a work which stands in urgent need of a recording – or even a release of the BBC broadcast given in the 1950s), and such comparisons are enlightening. Where Bush casts a twentieth century mantle over mediaeval turns of phrase and modes, Hoddinott’s jaunty march theme is uncompromisingly twentieth century in tone, and some of the orchestral effects such as the use of the flexatone are frankly anachronistic although they convey a lightness of touch which is surprising in the subject matter. However just as the ear was becoming accustomed to the idiom, the music finished abruptly in a manner that Peter Reynolds in his programme note described as “dramatic” but which sounded merely unexpected.
Mathias’ Second Piano Concerto has recently been rescued from oblivion in a recording by Mark Bebbington but it was pleasing to learn that the performance here is also destined for CD release on Tŷ Cerdd’s own label, since the work does not deserve the neglect that has fallen on it since its 1961 première. Lyn Davies in his programme note referred to the clear influence of Tippett in the first movement, but this is more adumbrated into Mathias’s own idiom that was sometimes the case in his later works where ‘influence’ had an unfortunate tendency to topple over into ‘imitation’. The orchestral accompaniment was sprightly, and the strings lustre lent quite a romantic sheen to the proceedings which proved a satisfying contrast. The second movement scherzo was positively Bartókian in mood, and charged happily away under Llŷr Williams’s nimble fingers even when the percussive orchestration threatened to overwhelm him, and the trio was delightfully cheeky. The third movement was heavily portentous, and the weight of string tone brought real passion to the writing; and if the dance-like finale failed to hold the attention to the same degree, that might have been because the compositional fluency seemed to easily achieved. But then, as Peter Reynolds pointed out, Mathias in a lecture given the year before his death contended that “great meaningful simplicity is far more difficult to achieve than complexity. In our time we have had too much of the latter and too little of the former.” Mathias’s masterpiece for piano is surely his Second Piano Sonata, a startlingly violent piece, but in a performance like this the Second Piano Concerto also stakes a claim to attention.
Grace Williams’s Fairest of Stars is probably most familiar from Janet Price’s 1976 recording most recently available on Lyrita, and Elin Manahan Thomas’s more delicate voice lacks the richness of her predecessor; the Straussian richness of the prominent orchestral texture all too frequently obscured the singer’s words (which unforgivably were not given in the programme – we do not all know Milton by heart!). Indeed the vocal writing demands the richness of a Marschallin rather than a Sophie (to maintain the Straussian parallels), and although Elin Manahan Thomas floated her lines beautifully it still seemed the wrong sort of voice for this neo-romantic writing. On the other hand, Grant Llewellyn obtained more integrated playing from the BBC NoW than Sir Charles Groves managed to extract from the London Symphony Orchestra some forty years ago, with the string playing in particular more full-bodied. But the results did reduce the soloist’s voice to a very beautiful vocalise in which the meaning of the text could hardly be discerned.
The concert concluded with a performance of Daniel Jones’s Tenth Symphony which appears to have been the first outing for the work since its première (also under Groves) during the Llandaff Festival in 1981; I have heard a recording of that performance some time ago (it is available on the internet), but have to admit that none of the score remained fixed in my recollection. There are some memorable ideas such as the bell sounds at the very beginning, but they somehow fail to cohere into a unity; and even in a performance such as this there was no discernible sense of evolutionary shape, the composer’s concern for tonal centres leading instead to a rather grey and academically meandering impression. The rhythmic quirkiness of the second movement generated more interest, but its brevity was disconcerting and it seemed to end almost before it had got properly going. The third movement passacaglia did not avoid many of the pitfalls inherent in the form – a tendency to fall into distinct contrasted sections – with the result that there was no real sense of forward propulsion, and Robert Plane’s brief clarinet solo provided the only moment of lyrical relief. All of Grant Llewellyn’s skill and momentum could not hold this ramshackle construction together, with its fleeting moments of climax all too rapidly dissipated. The finale, despite the fact that its main theme was obtrusively reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, had more impulse; but the return of the bell motif from the first movement which interrupted the progress of the music was not really resolved.
Despite the reservations that I have expressed, this was nevertheless a most interesting and indeed intriguing programme into which a clear degree of intelligent planning had been invested. One hopes that Tŷ Cerdd will be encouraged to undertake further expeditions into the substantial archive of Welsh music, and next time possibly to include the work of some living Welsh composers. Their recent praiseworthy commission of Mervyn Burtch’s Four portraits of Dylan would point the way forward in this field.
Paul Corfield Godfrey