Enterprising Concert Features Welsh Composers Old and New

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Welsh Foundations 1 – Jones, Hoddinott, Hardy, Mathias:  Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Grant Llewellyn (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 18.10.2016. (PCG)

Daniel Jones Ieuenctid (1956)

Alun Hoddinott – Horn Concerto, Op.65 (1969)

John Hardy – Blue Letters from Tanganyika (1997)

William Mathias – Symphony No 1 (1965)

This was the first in a cycle of three concerts entitled Welsh Foundations, which have the excellent idea of coupling a work by a living Welsh composer with an overture, a concerto and a symphony by each of the three composers who established Welsh classical music in the 1950s and 1960s. (One might cavil at the omission of Grace Williams from this pantheon, but BBC Wales have done quite well by her over the last few years including the large-scale Missa Cambrensis last March.) Both the concerto and symphony in this programme resulted from commissions by the lamented Llandaff Festival and both were premièred in Llandaff Cathedral in the 1960s. Both have also been the subject of commercial recordings (the Mathias First Symphony indeed has been recorded twice) but neither have been performed for some years now and it is welcome that a new generation is taking up this music.

Indeed this performance of the William Mathias First Symphony was an absolute triumph, marking a considerable improvement on either of the commercial recordings previously available. The work itself has received a rather mixed reception over the years, with most of the criticism focusing on the perceived imitation of Sir Michael Tippett (one reviewer of the Nimbus recording described it not altogether kindly as ‘Tippett’s Fifth‘. Now I am the first to acknowledge that Mathias’s admiration for the music of Tippett did on occasion topple over into something close to outright imitation; but although there are echoes to be found here, the symphony itself packs an emotional punch which is decidedly Mathias’s own. The work is Tippettian chiefly in its exuberance, but in the first movement at least without Tippett’s sense of underlying unease and melancholy. The woodwind eruptions in the slow movement recall the Ritual Dances from Tippett’s opera The Midsummer Marriage, but they are gradually subsumed into a long-breathed series of string melodies that have a real electric charge especially when they are as well played and as sympathetically conducted as here. The only point at which the symphony seriously threatens to recall earlier models is in the malicious scherzo, a close relative of that to be found in Walton’s First Symphony.

A similar and even closer resemblance to that scherzo was to be found in the second movement of Alun Hoddinott’s Horn Concerto, originally written for Ifor James but recorded for Lyrita some years later by Barry Tuckwell. This is an oddly constructed work, with the scherzo surrounded by a slow and atmospheric opening movement and succeeded by an extended cadenza and a brief coda to round things off. Reviewing the Tuckwell recording back in 1974 both Trevor Harvey in the Gramophone and Malcolm Boyd in Musical Times criticised this coda as inadequate as a conclusion to the concerto, and again here the slowly built-up elaborated chord seemed rather perfunctory. And indeed the opening movement, with its percussion-haloed textures surrounding the soloist and orchestral horns, could have been further developed to its advantage. In an interview with Nicola Heywood Thomas before the performance Gwyn L Williams of the Welsh music archive Ty Cerdd described Hoddinott as ‘terribly fluent’ and one did get the distinct impression of a work written to commission and against the pressure of a deadline. Again, however, it would be hard to imagine a better performance from soloist, orchestra and conductor; and Hoddinott’s music will be more substantively represented in the later concerts in this series.

The Daniel Jones overture Ieuenctid was written for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, and its Welsh title indeed means ‘Youth’.  Following its 1956 première the composer conducted it with the BBC Welsh Orchestra, and this performance has been available on the internet; but it serves principally to show how far the orchestra has come over the last fifty years and more. Mind you, the doggedly offbeat rhythms at the start seemed determined to give the erroneous impression that the players were not quite together. Again, this is not one of Jones’s most impressive works and better is to come later in this series of concerts, but it made an attractive curtain raiser to the programme.

Even more attractive however was the work by a living Welsh composer (although born just across the English border) John Hardy, whose Blue letters from Tanganyika was originally written for this orchestra. The title refers not to any jazz influence (or even to anything pornographic) but to the fact that the inspiration for the music came from air mail letters sent by the composer’s mother describing a trip through present-day Tanzania during the 1950s – with incidents including upset boats, crocodiles, hippopotamuses and lions. Not all of these incidents were clearly to be discerned in the music, but the result was great fun and the orchestra seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves; the composer rightly praised their enthusiastic contribution when he in his turn came to be interviewed.

In his notes for this concert Peter Reynolds described the first three movements of Blue letters as ‘played without a break’. They were not that, but this was a rare slip from a writer whose programmes for the BBC concerts over the years have been invariably informative and well-informed – and discussion with whom during intervals (for he frequently attended the events for which he provided his notes) was always enjoyable and enlightening. It is a matter for real regret that his sudden death last week will rob us of the chance to encounter his words of wisdom in future, although we were informed that he had already written the notes for all the concerts in the Welsh Foundations series. This concert was rightly dedicated to his memory, and a spoken tribute to him was included in the live broadcast on Radio 3. Those who missed it should try and catch it on the BBC iPlayer during the course of the next month, and they will be rewarded also with a superlative performance of the William Mathias First Symphony which stakes a claim for it as a great work which deserves more frequent hearings.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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