More Pioneering Welsh Composers Come under the Spotlight in Enterprising Concert Series

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Hoddinott, Mathias, Hilary Tann, Daniel Jones: Llŷr Williams (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Tecwyn Evans (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 26.11.2016. (PCG)

HoddinottThe Sun, the Great Luminary of the Universe (1970)

Mathias – Piano Concerto No 3 (1968)

Hilary TannThe grey tide and the green (2002)

Daniel Jones – Symphony No.13 In memoriam John Fussell (1992)

This second programme in the BBC NOW’s interesting series ‘Welsh Foundations’ featured like the first, which I  reviewed a couple of months ago, works by three of the composers who established the standard for professional orchestral composition in the principality, together with a newer work by a contemporary Welsh composer. It began with Hoddinott’s ‘music for orchestra’ The Sun, the Great Luminary of the Universe, inspired by a description of the Apocalypse derived from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This was one of the first of Hoddinott’s works to be recorded on LP, and that reading conducted by David Atherton remains in the catalogues in a CD transfer on Lyrita. At the time it seemed like a major work indeed, with a sense of searing heat and white-hot invention; but the passing of the years has not been altogether kind to it, since many of its gestures now seem unmotivated and the whole does not seem to cohere into a unit as it once did. This may be the result of the use, unusual in Hoddinott, of deliberate quotations from the work of other composers: Bach’s chorale Es ist genug (also employed in Berg’s Violin Concerto), fleeting references to the plainchant Dies irae and even one passage whose textures recalled the opening of the second part of The Rite of Spring. These references were clearly intended to reflect various episodes in Joyce’s text, and it was unfortunate that the BBC were unable to find space in their programme to quote this (as was done with the commercial LP recording) since this might have supplied the audience with some clues as to what images the music was intended to invoke. The elements of orchestral colour and contrasts of texture were as effective as ever, nevertheless, although the applause which greeted the performance could only be described as polite rather than enthusiastic.

The orchestral colours in Mathias’s Third Piano Concerto were similarly striking, and rather more effective in their context. The rediscovery of Mathias’s first two concertos on disc and in the concert hall over the past few years has been an unexpected delight, and has tended to overshadow their later companion which was already familiar from Peter Katin’s pioneering recording made shortly after the première (and also still available on CD). What was striking in this live performance was the subtle use of celesta and tuned percussion to surround, colour and extend the sound of the solo piano – immediately striking when the players were distributed across the sound-stage in a manner which was much less apparent in the integrated acoustic of a studio recording. The halo of percussion around Llŷr Williams’s delicate piano playing in the slow movement had a sense of limpid beauty that was most attractive even when the music itself threatened to become over-extended (the Vivace passages that punctuated the movement seemed insignificant in their context). What was also impressive here was the manner in which Mathias, whose admiration for composers like Tippett could so often topple over into near-imitation, forged his own sound-world wherein the influences became less obvious. Williams’ playing showed real commitment, aided and abetted by some stupendously precise orchestral playing under the baton of Tecwyn Evans. Mathias always seems to have reserved some of his best writing for the piano – such as in his marvellous Second Sonata – and this was another example of his real affection for the instrument even in the more driving Bartókian percussiveness of the outer movements.

After the interval we heard a piece by Hilary Tann (b.1947) which was introduced by the composer herself in conversation with Nicola Haywood Thomas. This reflected some poetic lines by R S Thomas (1913-2000) which were quoted in the programme notes, contrasting the almost industrial landscapes of Tann’s native South Wales, adamantine brass and bells, with more pastoral sections and extended lyrical string lines. Some more agitated passages at first hardly rippled the surface, but gradually a greater sense of excitement began to percolate into the music although one could have imagined a more atmospheric performance; pianissimi seemed to be in rather short supply. The composer has continued to find inspiration in the poetry of R S Thomas, and when I reviewed the CD of her later Seven Poems of Stillness for this site in the autumn of 2014 I lamented the lack of a recording of The Grey Tide and the Green. I did however note that there was at that time an online recording available of an extract from the first performance of the score, and that seemed to have a more recessed quality which suited the music better.

Daniel Jones’s final symphony written in memory of the director of the Swansea Festival (and organist) John Fussell was rather in the nature of a pendant to his cycle of twelve symphonies which had preceded it, each centred around a different note of the chromatic scale. It did however reflect the construction of the previous twelve, with much of the music deriving audibly from an opening motto theme on the timpani. At present it appears that Lyrita are embarking upon a project to release all of Jones’ symphonies (in recorded broadcast performances) and the performance here will presumably form a conclusion to that cycle (although an earlier performance with the same orchestra under Richard Hickox has long been available on the internet). However one has to admit that this symphony has the atmosphere of a personal statement of affection for a friend, rather than the culminating summation of a lifelong symphonic career that one might have expected. In particular the sudden entry of the organ (Fussell’s instrument) in the final movement takes the listener rather by surprise, and the conclusion when it combines with the orchestra lacks the sense of peroration and finality that one might ideally desire. The lolloping scherzo however was a delight, as indeed was the searing intensity of the slow movement that had all the hallmarks of Jones’s mastery of the form; and the opening trombone solo with marimba accompaniment was unexpectedly convincing.

In conclusion might I be permitted to make a brief observation on the programme material provided by the BBC for this series of concerts? In the past I have sometimes complained about insufficient material (texts in particular) provided for concerts at this venue, and was told that this was because of constraints of space necessitated by the format used. However the BBC have now resorted to supplying merely a single sheet (admittedly well-designed) of folded A3 paper which has to accommodate programme notes in both English and Welsh and omits altogether (for example) any listing of the individual players involved in any concert. This is a retrograde step, made all the more regrettable when the BBC programmes provided for their concerts at St David’s Hall are always so comprehensive and informative (and not very much more expensive). It is a rather sad reflection on the work of Peter Reynolds, who had provided so many always perceptive and wide-ranging programme notes over many years, and whose funeral I had attended the day before this concert.

The concert itself was not being broadcast live, but is scheduled for transmission on Radio 3 on 17 January next year, just under a week before the final programme in this ‘Welsh Foundations’ series. It is earnestly recommended to listeners as a chance to hear the complete Hilary Tann score and a rare outing for the Daniel Jones symphony, as well as Llŷr Williams’s marvellous performance of Mathias’s final piano concerto.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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