United Kingdom Mervyn Burtch (1929-2015): Connor Fogel (piano), Hannah Scott (flute), Sophie Levi (voice), Ella O’Neill (piano), Michael Gibbs (French horn), Emma Cayeux (piano), Sioned Evans (piano), Alis Huws (harp), Jessica Robinson (voice), Sophie Silverstone & Felix Lo (violins), Lily Rogers (viola), Gemma Connor (cello), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 7.10,2015 (GPu)
Burtch, Piano Sonatina No.8 (2013)
Four Portraits from Alice in Wonderland (1982, 1997)
Small Ads (1987)
Sonatina for Horn and Piano (1992)
Five Aphorisms (1989)
Five Preludes for Harp [movements 1,4,2,5] (1987)
Lights Out [from String Quartet No.11] (2010)
The name of Mervyn Burtch is not, I suspect, very well-known beyond his native Wales. It ought to be, for he was an accomplished and various composer, much of whose work, although it has an inner seriousness, was always accessible to the general public and to amateur performers. Indeed one of the most remarkable things about Burtch’s career was the amount of music he wrote for brass bands, community choirs and children. He wrote several operas for performance by children and youth groups. But he also wrote a number of admirable chamber works, concertos, piano works and songs. I haven’t heard by any means all of his seventeen string quartets, but such as I have heard will stand comparison with pretty well all of his British contemporaries.
Burtch was born in November 1929 at Ystrad Mynach, in the Rhymney valley in South Wales (in which valley he lived almost all his life), the son of a railwayman who played the violin. When, as a grammar school boy he attended Lewis school in Pengam, he was fortunate enough to be taught by David Wynne (1900-1983), another fine Welsh composer now rather neglected, who was then teaching music at the school. After studying at what was then University College Cardiff, Burch too became a teacher of music in secondary schools, before joining the staff of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 1979, retiring in 1989 and becoming a Fellow of the College. He was awarded the M.B.E in 2003. After a lengthy illness, he died on May 12th, 2015, leaving behind more than 600 compositions, in print or in manuscript. The Mervyn Burch Trust was established in October 2014, to ensure the continued accessibility of his work; the Trust’s website (http://mervynburtch.com/index.shtml) contains much valuable information. A charming portrait of Burtch, painted by Gigi Jones, can be seen at http://blog.rwcmd.ac.uk/2015/05/14/in-memory-of-mervyn-burtch/).
It was fitting, given Burtch’s connection with the College (as well as his importance to Welsh music), that students of the College should have given a concert, well-conceived and equally well-performed, of works by Mervyn Burtch under the title Mervyn Burtch: A Celebration; it was equally pleasing that the substantial audience should include many of the composer’s family and friends –not least his widow Rita [Jones].
In this conspectus of some aspects of Burtch’s work (the operas, for example, were not represented, except rather indirectly) the performances, all by students of the Royal Welsh College, were of a high standard, perceptive in their treatment of the music and technically assured. Not for the first time in the last few years, I was struck by the level of musicianship which characterizes the work of so many of the College’s students. Since the same could be said of students at other British conservatoires, one wonders (a) if this is not a golden age of young musicians and (b) how they are all going to find future employment?
Connor Fogel’s performance of Burtch’s Piano Sonatina No. 8 (it was typical of Burtch’s modesty – and his love of musical concision – that he so often used words like Sonatina and Concertino, rather than Sonata and Concerto in giving titles to his compositions), articulated very well the work’s rapid changes of dynamics and shifting rhythmic emphases, capturing the writing’s wit and vivacity very attractively. Fogel put the case very persuasively for this delightfully engaging and formally neat piece.
Flautist Hannah Scott was an admirable interpreter of Burtch’s ‘Four Portraits from Alice in Wonderland’ for solo flute. The composer wrote two operatic settings of Alice, in 1981 and 1997. In August 1982 he wrote three pieces for flute, related to his work for the opera of the previous year, and in September 1993 he added a fourth piece (‘Alice’). Scott was equally convincing in the mental scurryings of the March Hare’s madness, her playing expressively coloured, and in the charming somnolence of the dormouse, broken by occasional unexpected utterances. Alice’s innocent playfulness and sense of wonder was beautifully balanced by the Mad Hatter’s quirky pomposity.
The rootedness of much of Burtch’s music in the everyday, transformed by his musical imagination, was nowhere more evident than in the nine short songs that form ‘Small Ads’, settings of texts based on the classified advertisements found in local newspapers, whether seeking homes for kittens (“good mousers also budgerigars”), adventure holidays for children (“Toddlers and teenagers – want to get them from under your feet?”) or in search of a lost cocker spaniel (the music here having a gravity which only teetered on the edge of parody). Throughout Burtch’s inventiveness is delightful, not least in the number of different ways he finds to set the telephone numbers which close most of these advertisements. The diction of mezzo Sophie Levi was not always quite as clear as it might have been, but she captured very well the humour in most of these settings. Rossini once boasted that he would be happy to set a laundry list, though he never did so; neither, so far as I know, did Mervyn Burtch, but he did set, very entertainingly, this equally unpromising material.
The three movement ‘Sonatina for Horn and Piano’ demonstrated, as so many of Burtch’s compositions do, his understanding of the nature and possibilities of a large and various selection of instruments – in this case the French Horn (Burtch himself was no mean pianist), for which Burtch’s writing is perfectly conceived, not least in the hauntingly beautiful theme in the opening movement (Moderato). The horn rather dominates this Sonatina, the piano essentially reduced to the role of accompanist. The nicely shaped allegretto (the second movement) has a charming piano introduction, followed by a good deal of wittily inventive writing for the horn. Michael Gibbs responded with fluency and expressivity to Burtch’s writing and pianist Emma Cayeux was a precise, perceptive and supportive accompanist. The final movement, marked molto allegro, might ideally have been taken just a little faster, but overall this was a convincing and supportive performance. Composition of this Sonatina was completed in 1992, but this appears to have been its first public performance. (A fact which suggests just how much good and interesting music lies awaiting discovery – and performance – in the archive of Burtch’s manuscripts).
Burtch’s penchant for concision was again to the fore in the ‘Five Aphorisms’ for solo piano. This is a work which, unlike the preceding Sonatina, has had a number of performances. The first piece of the five (marked ‘moderato leggiero’) has a beautiful pearl-like sense of shapely self-containment. I was reminded of Andrew Marvell’s drop of dew which “in its little globe’s extent / Frames as it can its native element”. (Mervyn Burtch, as a man well-read in English poetry would, I hope, have appreciated the allusion). The second (andante) is limpidly beautiful, especially in its opening bars, made up of a chain of (almost) isolated single notes. The third (allegretto) is full of rapid runs and elaborately patterned interplay between right and left hands, while the fifth (adagio assai e leggiero) has a punchy vigour and is full of neatly pointed phrases. The fourth (moderato) makes less immediate impact and is the least memorable of this fine set of piano miniatures. Sioned Evans gave a thoroughly competent performance of these superficially simple pieces – though one or two of them might have been characterized a little more forcefully.
The penultimate item on the programme consisted of four (nos. 1, 4, 2 and 5) of Burtch’s ‘Five Preludes for Harp’, played with great authority and confidence by Alis Huws. All four of the Preludes played were, without being ‘original’ in any gimmicky fashion (a stylistic sin of which Burtch could never be accused), blessedly free of the clichés of modern writing for unaccompanied harp. The first prelude is a lively and engaging miniature, unpretentiously inventive. The second prelude performed (no 4. in the published score) is more lyrical, a gentle and poignant piece, with moments of genuine pathos; it got a hypnotic performance from Alis Huws, in a reading of real beauty. It was followed by the second Prelude in Burtch’s score, which made interesting use of some striking dynamic contrasts. The sequence closed with the fifth Prelude, with its moments of real attack, in a piece which is imbued with a greater degree of ‘aggression’ than one normally encounters in pieces for solo harp.
Very fittingly the programme closed with ‘Lights Out’. Up until then mood of the concert had been very much one of celebration of Mervyn Burtch and his work. Now the mood, without abandoning celebration of the music, took on an elegiac cast. Burtch composed (or at any rate ‘completed’) his Eleventh String Quartet in 1996 (in four movements), but in 2013 (just two years before his death) he added, as a fifth movement, a setting for soprano and string quartet of Edward Thomas’ poem ‘Lights Out’. Thomas wrote this poem in late 1916 or early 1917, a few months before his death by shell-fire in April 1917. The poet, not surprisingly for a highly intelligent and sensitive man serving in the Royal Garrison Artillery, is full of presentiments of the likely nearness of death (primarily through the metaphors of sleep and the forest):
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.
Many a road and track
That, since the dawn’s first crack,
Up to the forest brink,
Deceived the travellers,
Suddenly now blurs,
And in they sink.
Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends;
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.
There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter and leave, alone,
I know not how.
The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
That Burtch, an ailing octogenarian, should recognize and share such apprehensions of the approaching shadows of death was only natural, perhaps indeed inevitable. The resultant setting has great dignity and a kind of unfussy acceptance, which yet allows for a good deal of emotional weight, even if much is left implicit (Burtch always seems to know, especially in his vocal settings, how much to leave unspoken/unsung). Though this piece (which was receiving its first performance) had considerable impact in performance, there was also a feeling that its young performers (not yet having experienced such intimations of mortality – at least not with the power that Thomas and Burtch had) hadn’t quite been able to articulate the full emotional intensity of the piece, a piece certainly able to stand on its own, and not merely to function as the conclusion of Burtch’s string quartet.
But any such reservations (of which I had very few) must not be allowed to detract from the sense that this was a well-conceived and well performed tribute to a fine composer with important ‘local’ associations. In a brief introductory talk before the concert, the composer Peter Reynolds, a friend of Mervyn Burtch, a lecturer in Composition at the RWCMD and a Trustee of The Mervyn Burch Trust, spoke in praise of Burtch’s ‘honesty and humility’, qualities evident in his work as much as in his life. I met Burtch only briefly on a couple of occasions (one of them involved a fascinating conversation about his favourite poetry, in which he spoke with more knowledge and eloquence than the poet who was our companion). Those who knew him much better than I, consistently speak very warmly of him as a man, as well as a composer. I very much hope that the Trust established to further his creative legacy will be able to facilitate and encourage many more performances of his work. (I believe this concert was recorded by staff of the RWCMD, and I very much hope that, in due course, the recording will appear on the website of The Mervyn Burch Trust).