United Kingdom Welsh Voices – new choral music from Wales: Cardiff University Contemporary Music Group / Robert Fokkens (conductor). St Augustine’s Church, Penarth, Cardiff, 23.6.2018. (PCG)
Max Charles Davies – Come, Holy Spirit
Charlie Barber – Kyrie
Damian Rees – Dona nobis pacem
Mervyn Burtch – Ave verum corpus
Pwyll ap Sion – Hiraeth
Hilary Tann – Paradise
Sarah Lianne Lewis – Kýrie eléison
Richard Elfyn Jones – Adam’s Fall
Guto Pryderi Puw – Psst! and Llongau Caernarfon
Gareth Churchill – Two Morys Rhymes and Braich Wen
Rhian Samuel – Yr Alarch
Geraint Lewis – Seen by the waits
Andrew Taylor – Lullabies
Eloise Gynn – Only breath
Concerts consisting entirely of contemporary music can sometimes be depressing affairs (and, with one exception, every composer represented in this programme is still living). First, there is the sense that the music confined to a ‘new music ghetto’ will only be of interest to those specifically interested. Second, such lowered expectations for audience involvement can lead to works designed to appeal to those interested in novelty rather than in the innate value of the music itself. But there was no such danger here. The mostly short pieces presented a wide variety of styles and techniques which had a general appeal and had attracted an audience, admittedly small, but not exclusively confined to a select body of aficionados. This audience was rewarded by generally excellent performances by a student body (that is, not professional singers) who had clearly been well prepared under the expert guidance of Robert Fokkens. I was pleased to learn that many of the featured works are to be included on a CD release in due course, which had been set down during the week preceding this concert.
The Ave verum corpus by Mervyn Burtch (1929-2015) was the only piece in the whole programme written by a dead composer. His recent and much-lamented death (he was a good friend of mine over many years) certainly qualified him for inclusion in a concert of new choral music. Of the thirteen other composers featured, no fewer than eight were present in the church to receive applause from the audience. The programme began with a setting of Come, holy Spirit (2015) by Max Charles Davies (b. 1981). The choir was split into two antiphonal groups at each side of the congregational area and the resonance of the acoustic gave a marvellous halo of sound around the voices. The music itself had reminiscences of the late Sir John Tavener, although the harmonic excursions were more unexpected as at the words ‘eternal joy’. The Kyrie (2012) by Charlie Barber (b. 1949) employed, by contrast, richly contrapuntal textures in a Renaissance style, highlighted by a consciously more ‘forward’ choral delivery and really full-blooded attack at the return of the opening words. The chordal harmonies were even more pronounced in the setting of the Dona nobis pacem (1998) by Damian Rees (b. 1978). It placed the male and female voices in contrast with each other both thematically and dynamically, with percussive declamation by the men set against more lyrically extended cantilena from the women. In the central section a plangent tenor solo was pingingly delivered by Carwyn Harris.
The Burtch Ave verum corpus (1995) had distinct echoes of Gustav Holst, both in its setting for female voices only – which echoed the earlier composer’s Ave Maria – and the side-slipping harmonies which recalled the setting of Ode to a Grecian Urn from the Choral Symphony. The latter was one of the composer’s favourite techniques; the conductor’s programme note described this as ‘unexpected’ but it sounded perfectly natural in this context.
The two male choir settings by Pwyll ap Sion (b. 1968) entitled Hiraeth (2012) displayed densely harmonised textures which coloured the Welsh words in a most atmospheric manner. The roots of this style lie deep in Welsh tradition, and can be heard in amateur improvisations to this day (where church harmonisations have not diffused it). It was a pity that we were not given texts or translations of the poems by Twm Morys, but the haunting sense of the lyrics was well conveyed by the composer’s programme note. The second movement, by the way, used Grace Williams’s harp piece Hiraeth as its starting point – not to be confused with the song of the same title which appeared recently on CD.
Although we were given the full text of the poem by George Herbert which formed the basis for Paradise (2008) by Hilary Tann (b. 1947), the verse itself is not among the poet’s best. Its preoccupation with an elaborate rhyming scheme (removing one consonant at a time from the final word of each line) seems to have overshadowed Herbert’s meaning; and when this does become apparent in the fourth verse, it is a disturbingly unpleasant one seeming to call for God’s judgement on sinners to be more drastic. This message was happily undermined by the composer’s use of a Latin chant to provide the evocation of joyful bells, much more in harmony with the concept of paradise than Herbert’s words would imply. The setting of Kýrie eléison (2012) by Sarah Lianne Lewis (b. 1988) is drawn from a mass setting for unaccompanied mixed choir; blossoming from a single note, it expanded with sometimes startling results which sounded very difficult for the choir to negotiate in terms of pitch, although they tackled the music with confidence. The first half of the concert concluded with Adam’s Fall (2017) by Richard Elfyn Jones (b. 1944) which, although it had been originally intended for a première by these singers, had been first performed last year at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Cambridge. It was really an anthem rather than a carol, although the setting of the words ‘we shall have a lodging there’ did have a decidedly dance-like feel to it. It was odd, too, to experience a Christmas text immediately before emerging into the air of a summer evening high above Cardiff Bay.
After the interval, the second half of the concert opened with the comic number Psst! (2008) by Guto Pryderi Puw (b. 1971). I had encountered this piece a couple of months back at an amateur event given at Cardiff University, but I was not so sure that the joke – a sort of tribute to the aerosol can – worked as well on second acquaintance, especially since the music (which the composer stated in his programme note had been ‘considerably shortened’) had been extended by repetition. On the other hand, members of the audience who were presumably encountering the work for the first time were smiling and clearly enjoying themselves. Later in the programme we were given the composer’s arrangement of the Welsh shanty Llongau Caernarfon (2010) which I had also heard at the April event; I was delighted to hear it again, since it is a very beautiful arrangement of a very beautiful melody.
We returned to the poetry of Twm Morys in the Two Morys Rhymes (2013) by Gareth Churchill (b. 1980) for male voices only. This was yet another work which I had heard in April, and the semi-spoken passages in the first song I have seen the Diva were nicely pointed. The second song, My first love was a plover, opened with a folk-like phrase whose chromatic shifts into a blues-like idiom came over as quite a startling contrast. The same composer’s Braich Wen (2017) also began with a folk-like theme with echoes of ‘Ca’ the yowes’ but developed quite differently with a use of ‘white note harmony’ which clearly taxed the choir in their higher reaches but seared like a branding iron.
The lyrics of the setting by Rhian Samuel (b. 1944) of Yr Alarch (‘The Swan’), by an anonymous Welsh poet of the fourteenth century, displayed a sense of delight in nature which is unusual in a writer of that period, such as the description of the bird as ‘the gleam of a snowdrift’. The composer matched the meaning of the words in a setting full of fire and passion, and it was splendidly delivered by the chorus. Similarly illustrative was the setting of Thomas Hardy’s poem Seen by the waits (1994) by Geraint Lewis (b. 1958), the humming chorus forming an atmospheric backdrop to the words delivered in a delicate thread of soprano sound.
The final two works on the programme were more adventurous in terms of what I suppose we should describe as avant garde effects, but in both pieces these were displayed as illustrations of the words rather than simply as features in their own right. The three movements of Lullabies (2013) by Andrew Taylor (b. 1989) evoked the sounds of distant and not-so-distant trains outside ‘Nan’s house’ who, the composer amusingly suggested, were dreaming “of national rail pension schemes”. The evocation of ‘Cranham Wood’ was a miniature tone-poem of superbly eerie effect, but the ticking clock in the final ‘Mum’s house’ was disturbed by some wayward pitching from the choir at the end of what was inevitably a long – and warm – night’s work.
The final piece in the programme, Only breath (2014) by Eloise Gynn (b. 1985) began with the sound of breathing in the same manner as Tippett’s Fourth Symphony but its amplification in terms of whispering from the chorus was wholly original. When the words by Rumi entered, they were initially chanted on a single pitch which served to make them ideally clear, at least during the first line (of three). After that the syllables of the text were often stretched in a decidedly unnatural manner, but the singers coped magnificently with the difficulties right through to the work’s rather abrupt ending. I must commend the programme booklet (twelve pages) which not only supplied informative and useful observations, usually from the composers themselves, but also enough of the texts to furnish enlightenment for the listeners. I look forward with eager anticipation to the appearance of the recording.
Paul Corfield Godfrey