United Kingdom Peter Reynolds (1958-2016): Michael McCartney (guitar), Philip May (piano), Simon Philippo (piano), Melys Wind Quintet (Hannah Scott, flute; Hilary Stavros Ives, oboe; Rowena Mayo, clarinet; Vikki Scanlon, horn; Polly Horton, bassoon). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 31.3.2017. (GPu)
Peter Reynolds – Sometimes There is a Hoar Frost (2008); Far Down in the Forest: Three Piano pieces for Children (2010); The Silver Apples of the Moon: Nocturnes for Wind Quintet (2002); Cippyn (sound track with projected film) (2015); Penllyn (2016)
The name of Peter Reynolds is, I suspect, relatively little-known beyond his native Wales. He was, though, a significant presence in the musical life of Wales – as a composer, teacher, arts administrator, writer and much else.
Peter read music at what was then University College, Cardiff and is now Cardiff University. He won bursaries to study at Dartington with composers including Peter Maxwell Davies and Morton Feldman. From 2002 until his death in 2016 he taught composition at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Between 2010 and 2013 he did important work as Composer in Residence on a scheme called Young Composer of Dyfed, nurturing the abilities of a number of promising young composers.
Peter played important roles with such bodies as the Lower Machen Festival, the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, Ty Cerdd (Music Centre Wales), the PM Music Ensemble and many others. He published (2009) a history of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and was a prolific writer of perceptive, knowledgeable and thoroughly literate programme notes for concerts at a number of venues in South Wales.
It would be wrong of me to pretend that Peter was an especially close friend, but, like many others who regularly attend concerts and operatic performances in Wales, it was always a pleasure to be greeted by Peter and to talk with him. To all he did and said he brought wide-ranging knowledge and great wit (rarely, if ever, used maliciously); indeed, his generosity of spirit was remarkable and invigorating. By nature modest, he was never one to push his own work or to boast of his own abilities.
On 11th October 2016, Peter died suddenly, of a heart attack. I have been told that Peter’s father died, at exactly the same age of the very same cause. Peter is already much missed – I still find myself looking out for him at concerts. This concert, in the institution where he was much respected and where he influenced so many students, was a fitting tribute to Peter’s work as a composer.
Much of Peter’s best work had ‘literary’ or ‘historical’ origins or associations, often carrying a phrase from a poem as a title. He was fascinated, too, by the imaginative world of fairy tale. In the present concert, for example, ‘Far Down in the Forest’ is built around responses to three stories by Hans Christian Andersen, ‘The Fir Tree’ (the title of Peter’s little suite being taken from the opening phrase of that story), ‘Thumbelina’ and ‘The Last Dream of the Old Oak’. Played by Philip May (who gave the premiere in this same venue on October 27, 2016), these three piano pieces have a kind of magic in their apparent simplicity, the first being slow, the second a little sprightlier, with a sense of musical transformations evoking the metamorphoses undergone by the little girl born from a barleycorn; the third, as befits the aged Oak tree, has a degree of grandeur, with echoes of the church bells heard in Andersen’s story.
‘The Silver Apples of the Moon’ is made of four linked nocturnes, and takes its title from the closing lines of W.B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ from his 1899 volume The Wind Among the Reeds. While Reynolds’ composition is no kind of programmatic musical version of the poem, pleasure in it is certainly enhanced by a familiarity with Yeats’ text, making clearer the sense of an enduring and inevitably unfulfilled love quest in Peter’s music. The way in which material from the first of the four pieces returns later musically enacts the constant recurrence of Aengus’ quest. In the last of the nocturnes the mood well matches Yeats’ final stanza:
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among the dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
The five young members of the Melys Wind Quintet responded well to the delicate poetry of Reynolds’ music, in an attractive and lucid performance of a piece whose seeming simplicity conceals much meticulous art.
Peter Reynolds was not unresponsive to his Welsh heritage. So, for example, ‘Penllyn’ (the most recent of his compositions heard in this concert) is a solo piano reworking of a hymn tune by Dafydd Sencyn Morgan (1752-1844), a tune sometimes known as ‘Horeb’. Peter’s work was written for that fine pianist Duncan Honeybourne, who played it as part of his project ‘Piano Postcards: a programme of Miniatures spanning 1916 to 2016’ at York Late Music in August 2016, where it was heard in the company of pieces by, amongst others, Morfydd Owen, Arthur Butterworth, Christopher Headington and Howard Skempton. In this concert the pianist was Simon Philippo; the piece has a slow and undemonstrative opening, and the whole has an oblique beauty in which Peter’s diversions from and additions to the original melody are respectful but illuminating both of things one wouldn’t have noticed in Morgan’s tune and of Peter’s own highly individual sensitivity; as so often in his work, one seemed to be hearing unexpected echoes of something lost. Philippo’s performance struck me as just a little stiff at times, while being responsive to the larger mood of the piece.
‘Cippyn’ was written as the soundtrack to a wordless film made by Aaron Cooper and Heledd Wyn Hardy; Cippyn refers to the derelict Bryn Salem Chapel in Cippyn, Cardiganshire, originally built in the middle of the Nineteenth Century and now being gradually taken over by the natural world (there are some evocative photographs at http://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/religious-sites/12943-bryn-salem-chapel-ceredigion.html. The concert audience was shown the film, with Reynolds’ music (for double bass and electronics, in a version featuring bassist Ashley John Long) played though on-stage speakers. The soundtrack makes use of natural sounds electronically treated, as well Long’s playing of the bass. In idiom, one might say that this piece is uncharacteristic of Reynold’s work, but the underlying sensitivity is immediately recognizable as his, with its attention to the small details of the neglected, its concern with the way the present affects the remains of the past and its sense of the slightly ominous magic of the natural world, it is archetypically a piece by Peter Reynolds.
The concert had begun with a performance of Peter’s ‘Sometimes There is A Hoar Frost’, for solo guitar, another piece which sounds as if its title has a literary/poetic source, but if it does I can’t, I’m afraid, identify it (unless, perhaps, it comes from Heather Tanner’s book of 1939, Wiltshire Village, a book Peter loved, but to which I don’t presently have access). It was played – very well – by the American guitarist Michael McCartney, who premiered the work in Brecon Cathedral on May 31st, 2010. It evokes, with apt stillness, the ice crystals seen through clear air that are the hallmark of a “hoar frost”. Reynolds’ limpid piece, with its frequent use of silence and its fragmentation of musical phrases, compels the listener’s attention and, in McCartney’s performance, cast a spell which spoke of reverential attention to the smallest details of the natural world.
Peter Reynolds was, as I mentioned earlier, an inherently modest man, and it would be wrong and inappropriate to make any excessive claims for his music. If I call him a good minor composer, my meaning is that his range was not great and there was much in the human condition that his music left untouched, but that, knowing and understanding the distinctiveness of his own sensibility, he was consistently able to write pieces which articulated ‘his truths’ with elegance and clarity, often in sounds of considerable beauty.
His lively presence at many a concert or opera will certainly be missed by many of us. But I sincerely hope that we shall continue to hear his music.