Unjustly Neglected Orchestral Gems Aired by BBC NOW in Final ‘Welsh Foundations’ Concert Series

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Welsh Foundations 3: Jack Liebeck (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales  /  Rumon Gamba (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 27.1.2017. (PCG)

William MathiasLaudi (1973)
Daniel Jones – Violin Concerto (1966)
Gareth Glyn  – Gododdin (2014)
Alun Hoddinott  – Symphony No.2 (1962)

The final concert in the BBC’s enterprising series ‘Welsh Foundations’ opened with what was the most popular orchestral composition by William Mathias, his mini-sinfonietta Laudi. It was first performed at the Llandaff Festival and is still currently available on CD in a recording conducted by David Atherton, which was sponsored by the Welsh Arts Council. It consists of a series of short linked but disparate movements, and whereas in some of his compositions Mathias seemed too clearly to demonstrate the influence of the composers he admired (particularly Michael Tippett), here the personal inspiration is evident even when some passages remind the listener of other styles. It has to be admitted that there is not much that is obviously Welsh about this music, and the atmosphere is more Mediterranean than Atlantic. An Italian atmosphere is particularly in evidence, with some passages that recall Respighi (the opening of the Pines of Rome) and Britten (Death in Venice), as well as a slow section that mirrors the garden in Messiaen’s Turangalila. But then one realises that Britten’s opera was actually first performed after Laudi (although in the same year), so it is a matter of parallel inspiration rather than imitation – two composers inspired by the same ideas to produce similar responses.

Daniel Jones’s violin concerto has received decidedly fewer performances over the years than Mathias’s Laudi, and has never been commercially recorded; but I have made the acquaintance of the work through a broadcast relay which has been available on the internet. This derives from a performance by Peter Thomas conducted by Bryden Thomson, which appears to have been the only previous outing that the concerto had received since its 1966 première. The work certainly does not deserve this sort of neglect; indeed, it is clearly a score of real greatness. Scoring for a very large orchestra, the composer does not stint on dramatic impact, but ensures that the solo line comes clearly through at all times; and Jack Liebeck delivered plenty of fine free tone. The lyricism of the slow second movement builds up quite a head of emotional steam before the soloist launches into an impassioned cadenza, but subsides into quiescence before the finale erupts with all the opportunity for bravura that you could desire. In this performance it sounded much more impressive than in the Thomson broadcast (where the close microphone placement of the soloist pushes Jones’s ebullient orchestration rather into the background) and I very much hope that Lyrita, who are currently releasing broadcast tapes of the Daniel Jones symphonies, will follow up that cycle by licensing this recording for commercial release (as well as the Symphony No.13 given earlier in this series, and the even more intriguing pre-war score of Jones’s Five Pieces for Orchestra which the BBC NOW gave in this hall back in December 2012).

Although quite a bit of the music of Gareth Glyn has been available on disc over the years, his current representation in the catalogues seems very thin; and his tone poem Gododdin does not appear to have been revived since its original performance some three years ago. This again is a clear case of unjust neglect. In some ways it is a humorous piece (the story reflects the defeat of a Welsh army following a prolonged bout of heavy drinking) but it also has a decidedly serious import, as the bard Aneirin laments the enormous numbers of the slain warriors with a plea that their valour should never be forgotten. And the work was written, too, in commemoration of the dead of the First World War a century before. The drunken carousal was rollickingly portrayed (and delivered by Rumon Gamba with a real sense of increasing inebriation) but the closing pages were touching without being lachrymose or morbid. This is a score which richly deserves to be heard again.

And so indeed does  the Second Symphony of Alun Hoddinott, in my opinion the most impressive of his cycle of ten (plus the choral Sinfonia Fidei) which spanned the composer’s whole creative life. This may well be Hoddinott’s first extant symphony; the First, after its initial performances in the 1950s, was withdrawn for revision in the 1980s and it is unclear if it ever re-emerged from that process. The tonal centre of D major with which the Second concludes is apparent throughout, and generates a whole series of memorable themes which give the symphony a real sense of purpose and unity; the return of the opening material during the finale is a moment of impressive drama. The scherzo has a sense of wild malevolence which recalls Walton’s First Symphony, and in their polished playing the orchestra savoured every poisonous moment. The first and third movements anticipated the nocturnal style of much of Hoddinott’s later music, but the textures were provocative and enticing as well as being atmospherically contrasted; there was certainly none of the veiled and withdrawn quality that one finds in the ‘nocturnal’ sections of the later symphonies. This work was also recorded for LP by Norman del Mar back in the 1970s, but the quality of the tape is rather unsatisfactory in the CD transfer (on Lyrita) and again one would hope that someone will consider licensing the tape of the performance for commercial release.

In the meantime the concert was broadcast live on Radio 3, and will continue to be available on the BBC iPlayer for another month. I have no doubt that Daniel Jones enthusiasts (they seem to be a growing and vociferous band) will eagerly seek out the Violin Concerto, but the other works on this programme should also be eminently pleasurable to many listeners. We need regular surveys of Welsh music like this Welsh Foundations series in succeeding years – especially if these could be undertaken in conjunction with an interested record company.

The spoken introductions by Nicola Heywood Thomas included an interview with Gareth Glyn, whose exposition of the story behind Gododdin did much to enlighten an audience who would have gleaned little of the detail from the brief programme note provided. I remain mystified how the BBC NOW, who produce such excellent material for their programmes at St David’s Hall (fourteen pages of editorial text for Mahler’s Sixth last week) can consider four pages of equivalent size adequate for the much less familiar repertoire presented here.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

3 thoughts on “Unjustly Neglected Orchestral Gems Aired by BBC NOW in Final ‘Welsh Foundations’ Concert Series”

  1. Yet again Mr Godfrey bemoans the fact that the programme note (which costs very little) offered by the BBCNOW at Hoddinott Hall is not as comprehensive as that offered at the orchestra’s main stage concerts at St. David’s Hall. I think he is missing the point. Hoddinott Hall is primarily a recording studio, not a major concert venue. The BBC effectively ‘invites people in’ (to hear a wide range of repertoire one would be unlikely to hear elsewhere. What is more, they charge a mere pittance for the privilege, though I dare say Mr. Godfrey gets his own ticket free. Also, as he rightly mentions, we receive background information from a BBC R3 presenter such as the excelllent Nicola Heywood Thomas. Oh do please stop whinging. it is becoming tiresome.

    Reply
    • This is an interesting debate. For me the Royal Albert Hall is a ‘recording studio’ in the summer when the BBC Proms are on and audiences are being asked to pay more than ‘a mere pittance’ for their seat and a programme. This is just to provide some background colour i.e. applause to the concert. Same could be said for their Wigmore Hall Lunchtime Concerts, these Hoddinott Hall events and similar. I don’t know the rights or wrongs in this particular case but I have been always very keen that everyone – including myself – in the audience ‘understands’ as much as possible what they are listening to.

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  2. I am somewhat surprised that Mr Furber should complain at my criticism of the new-style programmes which the BBC is supplying for their concerts at Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff. Until last autumn these had been fairly substantial documents, not always ideally full in detail but certainly informative and giving the audience and readers a comprehensive overview of the music as well as a complete list of the performers. The new single sheet loses much of this – we are, for example, not told who is playing what – and I think some comment about the new innovation is warranted. I will also continue to ‘winge’ (as indeed I occasionally voiced complaints about the old-style programmes) if to my mind the information provided is inadequate to give sufficient guidance to listeners, a particularly important point in new music. Without Gareth Glyn’s spoken introduction to his tone poem Gododdin, for instance, my considerable pleasure in the manner in which his music reflected the underlying ideas would have been diminished.

    As Jim Pritchard observes this is an interesting debate, and one which I have also addressed in two much longer articles for the Federation of Recorded Music Societies bulletin last year. The whole subject of CD booklet and concert programme notes is indeed a difficult and perplexing one – and the BBC are very far from being the worst culprits in the matter, as can be seen from my other comments on this site. In the end, the purpose of booklet and programme notes is to enhance the engagement of the audience by providing all the information necessary to engage them with the music; and with new and modern music, this is even more important than with the established classics. Under those circumstances whether the concerts are regarded as recording sessions or not seems largely irrelevant – the BBC NOW events at St David’s Hall are also designed for broadcast, but there the programme notes are pretty well ideal for their purpose.

    The argument that reviewers receive free tickets for the concerts they attend is an old chestnut dating back to the days of George Bernard Shaw and probably beyond. My reaction is that the provision of press tickets should not in any way condition the nature of their comment; and if they did, the resulting reviews would be worthless. I have to say that BBC NOW have always taken even my occasional adverse comments in good part, and suggestions regarding the programme booklets should be regarded as proposals for improvement rather than complaints. I could go on, but fear to become even more tiresome on the matter.

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