ENDNOTES

ENDNOTES – these he has loved

Mussorgsky, by Ilya Repin

ENDNOTES – these he has loved

Stuart Millson presents a seasonal selection

A few favourite recordings… a very personal view, and an end-of-year indulgence

I have always found that the month of December, and in particular, the Christmas holiday, is a good time to settle down and listen to old favourites from my CD and vinyl collection; to retrieve recordings which were bought – and played – with great enthusiasm in the 1990s and early-2000s (Nielsen overtures, a Khachaturian symphony, film music by Georges Auric, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition) and then put back upon the shelves – to be superseded by the next, fresh batch of purchases and review copies. So here is a selection of well-loved items from my collection; personal, indispensable favourites which I would like to share with readers and recommend – either as great interpretations, or as unusual or even eccentric versions which convey (to quote the title of an old Radio 4 programme about music) “the tingle factor”.

To begin with – a most unusual version of Mussorgsky’s evergreen, much-arranged, endlessly-recorded Pictures at an Exhibition. At the 2004 Proms, Leonard Slatkin (the then Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra – and I was there watching and listening) presented the work, but far away indeed from the familiar terrain of the Ravel orchestration. The wander through the gallery began, not with the famous noble trumpet announcement, but with a bewildering and surreal playing of the theme on percussion – the whole orchestra taking the idea up soon after. The orchestrator was one Byrwec Ellison (born 1957), leader of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and an unusual and unexpected “shaper” of this familiar music. Once out of Ellison’s part of the gallery, we move through a compelling variety of realisations, to the immense finale – The Great Gate of Kiev (a musical portrait of a piece of architecture which was never built, except in music). Nothing prepared me for what I heard in the Royal Albert Hall that night; and the Warner Classics disc (2564 61954-2), taken from the Radio 3 broadcast, still makes me take a deep breath – for “The Great Gate” comes slowly into view through a dark-sounding, deep-voiced male chorus intoning an ancient Russian chant, and then shines out gloriously through clarion brass, shimmering cymbal clashes, and the galvanising, stunning entry of the Royal Albert Hall organ. “The Great Gate” came courtesy of Douglas Gamley, a composer of music for the Hammer Horror film series, and a man clearly capable of the highest, most dramatic expressions of musical impact and drama. The applause from those 2004 prommers certainly adds to the satisfaction that you will find when listening to this remarkable disc.

More Russian romanticism, this time from the Swedish label BIS – and their sublime Rachmaninov cycle, which reaches (at least, for me) a high-point in the form of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra reading of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony (BIS-CD-1279). Their conductor here is Owain Arwel Hughes CBE, an experienced and passionate advocate of this repertoire, who summons the spirit of the composer in every moment and movement: the melancholy, yearning opening, the hurtling, glittering cascade of notes and vivid, energetic action across the strings in the second movement (evoking from my memory a night-trip by train, many years ago, with a bright sky of stars visible from the carriage). Then comes the famous Adagio, and the elemental barrage of orchestral affirmation at the end – in which Arwel Hughes almost seems to hold one of the last great phrases in mid-air – in suspension – as if to prolong and enhance the grandeur and glory of the finale for just one or two more moments. By any standards, this is an exciting and deeply-felt interpretation.

From the large-scale, to the introspective, I love the delicacy and mysterious tones of Debussy’s chamber works, in particular, his Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp in three movements, and Cello Sonata (two movements) written at the height of the Great War – works most emphatically of the early 20th century; early, moderate modernism, with the composer’s tenderness felt throughout. Debussy wrote of these works, that they were “… not so much for myself but to give proof, however small it may be, that even if there were thirty million Boches, French thought will not be destroyed.” The Athena Ensemble brings great understanding and classical elegance to these enigmatic creations on a Chandos CD from the mid-1980s – the CD booklet noting the comments of the musicologist Edward Lockspeiser, who viewed the Flute, Viola and Harp sonata as in fact a “triptych of single conception.”

In the days before CDs, I enjoyed the chamber works of Debussy on a vinyl record which I purchased in France in 1981 – the record bearing the label “Musicdisc – Richesse Classique” (catalogue number MU 209). It would take a serious record collector a long time to find this rare item, but I have seldom heard either the sonatas, or the String Quartet (the main item), played so authentically – although the recording quality is not of the highest standard, and is even a little constricted and “crackly”. Fortunately, the wording on the record sleeve was translated into English, although again, not terribly well! However, the writer (unnamed) seems to summarise the record and the repertoire…

“As to the sonatas, which writing extremely refined seems to seal an inner mystery, they constitute the musical will and testament of Debussy. The first-rate interpretation in the most trifling lights and shades is of performers as famous as Bernard Galais and Claude Helffer, specialists of the twentieth century music.” 

From the impressionism and warmth of Debussy, to the lands of Northern Lights, legendary warriors and mythical swans: a 1997 recording on the Finlandia label of well-known works by Sibelius, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis – not with his customary band, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but with the accompaniment of the clear, clean, lithe-sounding Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.

Orchestral mists summon up the spirit of En SagaThe Swan of Tuonela, and the players give their national and emotional-sounding best in the heroic Finlandia, and the Op. 112, Tapiola. But best of all on the collection is the lonely seascape, The Oceanides, a commission from the Norfolk Music Festival in America, at which the composer appeared and conducted on the 4th July 1914. Originally entitled Rondo of the WavesThe Oceanidesis the only tone-poem by the composer not to refer explicitly to a Finnish or Scandinavian myth, but in its nine minutes builds to a great tumult every bit as exciting as En Saga. And so perfectly does it encapsulate the sense of grey seas, skies and supernatural beings materialising and dematerialising in the play of the waves (the Oceanides are sea-nymphs and mermaids), that the work almost seems to bring on a sense of loss in the heart of the listener, when the score darkly ebbs away into the orchestra’s deeper registers, slowly drawing to its close.

In the 1970s, The Oceanides appeared on a classic and vintage BBC film about the life-cycle of the Atlantic salmon, presented by the angler and naturalist Hugh Falkus. Sibelius’s music was used in the final elegiac moments, as the life of the ocean-going salmon ends in the head-waters of the river of its birth. The film – deeply absorbing and beautifully shot – is still available on specialist productions, and I am sure that anyone, including the non-countryman, would find it stimulating and moving, not least because of its use of Sibelius.

Nature-worship formed a very important part of the character of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), and alongside his Third and Fourth symphonies, his large-scale work for orchestra and two soloists, Das Lied von der Erde (a symphony in all but name, perhaps) represents themes of man and mortality, farewell and withdrawal, but also the exuberance of youth. All of these ideas flower within a heady, regenerative setting of Nature: the sections of the work bearing names such as: Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrows, The Lonely Man in Autumn, The Drunkard in Spring etc.

Mahler set Chinese poetic texts, taken from a collection of by Hans Bethge, known as The Chinese Flute – although the atmosphere of ancient gardens in the Orient and Chinese music occasionally appears and floats across a typically Austro-German symphonic landscape, a character brought out by the rasping, “dark-brown” brass of the Dresden Staatskapelle on Deutsche Grammophon (DG 453 437-2), under the brilliant Italian conductor, Giuseppe Sinopoli (known in London during his 1980s’ tenure with the Philharmonia). Of all my Mahler collection, Das Lied comes – it seems to me – closer and closer to the meaning of life.

On the subject of Mahler, the English conductor Frank Shipway died earlier this year – a figure that appeared to be something of an “outsider” in British musical life, despite having many great gifts as a conductor, and an appetite for large-scale works – Berlioz, Mahler, Shostakovich. I saw Shipway conduct on two occasions: once at a Sunday night concert of Russian romantic repertoire at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley (in about 1980), and at the Royal Festival Hall in 1984, at the helm of his half-professional, half-amateur London orchestra, the Forest Philharmonic, still based in Walthamstow. In the obituaries which appeared, it seems that the conductor’s maverick manner and his Karajan-like “authoritarianism” provoked mixed feelings from musicians. Sir Colin Davis, for example, was unsure about engaging him at the Royal Opera House, because of an almost 19th-century demeanour (Shipway was said to sweep in like a figure from another age); but for international maestro Lorin Maazel, the Englishman had great potential. He was invited to the U.S., to Maazel’s world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra, and critics reported that: “The night belonged to Shipway”.

However, despite these successes, only a few recordings seem to survive of Shipway’s work, none greater perhaps than a splendid account of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, recorded in Watford, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (available on TRP 096). To many, this powerfully-realised rendition (the RPO delivering all the sturm und drang associated with Mahler) was a version that came out of the blue – a surprise to many writers and observers. On the RPO’s own label, it remains a unique and treasured part of my Austro-German collection – and I recommend it to anyone who thrills to the great “darkness-to-light journey” of this immense symphonic statement by Mahler – the absolute romantic.

Finally, no Christmas edition of a magazine’s music section is complete without a mention of that central seasonal tradition – Handel’s Messiah. Today, of course, we delight in so many period-instrument renditions: a lighter, darting, more astringent baroque sound, that is so fashionable with audiences. But it is worth remembering the performance style of the 1950s and ‘60s, the years of Sargent and Boult. Decca’s 1961 extracts from Messiah, with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Sir Adrian Boult (433 637-2) – especially in the final, Worthy is the Lamb – seems to set the heavens ringing, with a solid, well-enunciated, half-operatic, half-English cathedral style of choral singing that would swallow most baroque performances. It is almost as if The Dream of Gerontiushas found its way into Messiah, such is the majesty and grandeur of Sir Adrian’s reading. This is a stirring, vintage recording – and a CD which should provide much enjoyment for this season of the year.

STUART MILLSON is QR’s classical music critic

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ENDNOTES

edited by Stuart Millson

Valerie Tyron

Valerie Tryon

ENDNOTES, October 2014

In this edition: Rachmaninov, Dohnányi and Strauss from Somm Records * Summer music from Judith Bailey * Sacred choral music from St. John’s College, Cambridge

Although Endnotes has avoided “Discs of the month” and other sales-like descriptions, I feel that the latest recording to arrive from Somm Records deserves some sort of special recognition. Pianist, Valerie Tryon (now aged 80, but as a child, one of the youngest students ever to be admitted to the Royal Academy of Music) appears on a CD devoted to three significant, but less frequently performed works: the Piano Concerto No. 1 (1890-1, revised 1917) by Rachmaninov; Richard Strauss’s Burleske for Piano and Orchestra (1890); and the dramatic, melodious, inventive and thoroughly enjoyable Variations on a Nursery Song (1914) by Hungarian composer, Ernst von Dohnányi (1897-1960).

Accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jac van Steen (a Dutch maestro often seen at the Proms, particularly with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales), Valerie Tryon gives a performance of dramatic drive and colour that is never-too-hard, and of romantic, delicate, mood-matching virtuosity that is never-too-overstated. Her tone, her approach to every note, and her clear feeling for this array of late-romantic music seems to be complemented in every way by an RPO sound which seems to “grow” from and around her: the orchestra exuding a warm, euphonious, poised and elegant tone – a weight and a sense of distance and echo, but with clear, sharp brass, and splendid percussion contributions, including a pleasing swish to cymbal clashes, blending into the effortless orchestral wash of colour.

We are familiar, perhaps over-familiar, with Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, although I much prefer the longer, more thoughtful, more saga-like Third. Rarely does the First Concerto enjoy an outing, and perhaps it is the slightly less “fluent” or sure-footed – less gradually-unfolding nature of the work that accounts for this. The opening, for example, is abrupt, and the piece never quite seems to settle – as is witnessed by the jumpy and nervous, but nevertheless bold announcement of the final movement theme. And yet there are exciting passages and great moments for a great soloist, such as Valerie Tryon, to seize upon: dynamic and attention-grabbing sequences, with all the intensity, passion and also “Russian gloom” that informs all of Rachmaninov’s works.

Rachmaninov's hands

Rachmaninov’s hands

The Richard Strauss Burleske is also played well, but I must confess to not liking the work as much as anything else on the disc. As Richard Strauss goes, this 20-minute piece does not seem to be particularly characteristic of the composer (we think of his blood-curdling Salome, or the opulent, rich, more 20th-century symphonic writing): in fact, the Burleske could almost be by Liszt, whose inspiration and example were never far away from the younger Strauss. But for sheer individual quality and wit, it is the Dohnányi that crowns Valerie Tryon’s Somm collection: the composer’s Introduzione, statement-of-theme and then eleven variations on the nursery rhyme tune, which we all know and recognise as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”. At first, the Maestoso opening – as grand as anything in serious, romantic music – makes us believe that we are in the company of a thundering old-school Wagnerian, fond of portentous gestures. And then, a drum stroke (which shakes you), and cymbal clash that crashes out of your speakers and slices into your ears, leads into the soft-in-heart, nostalgic old nursery tune. This moment, with its huge and unexpected contrast… I defy you not to smile! From then on, an absorbing and intriguing virtuoso development and flight of imagination by Dohnányi takes the tune into all manner of allegro or waltz-like manifestations, which recall the styles of other composers. Listen especially to the third variation – marked L’istesso tempo – and you will hear a theme which brings to mind Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, a charming, beautiful and memorable part. Recorded at the Henry Wood Hall in the July of last year (Recording Producer, Siva Oke, and Engineer, Tony Wass), Somm deserves absolutely full marks for an inspired production.

The Cornish-born composer and former Royal Academy of Music student, Judith Bailey (b. 1941), is undoubtedly one of contemporary music’s lesser-known voices. But I believe that this might well change, as a result of a brand-new CD from EM Records, the recording arm of the English Music Festival. Entitled ‘Havas’ (a native old-Cornish term for a period of summer), the disc allows us to sample a number of landscape scenes, with powerful, historical and mystical associations – Lanyon Quoit (a Neolithic site), The Merry Maidens (a stone circle in the Cornish countryside), and an area of coastal water – Gwavas – said to have healing powers. The orchestral writing is compelling and attractive – and something of the spirit of Bax’s Tintagel finds its way into the score, although I was also reminded of the music of William Alwyn and of his composer-wife, Doreen Carwithen. Judith Bailey’s 17-minute-long Concerto for Orchestra also appears, alongside a sequence of four works by George Lloyd (1913-98) – a fellow Cornish composer, who has long been viewed as a standard-bearer (or a symbol) of the neglected post-war romantic tradition; that time when Stockhausen and the Second Viennese School almost completely eclipsed all those who tried to maintain tonality and British romanticism.

Gull Rock, Cornwall

Gull Rock, Cornwall

The orchestra used for the recording is the very fine Bath Philharmonia (an ensemble quite new to me) who play in firm, full-bloom, professional style, in Lloyd’s Prelude to Act 1 of The SerfIn MemoriamLe Pont du Gard (a symphonic impression of the ancient French aqueduct), and the nostalgic, HMS Trinidad March (a tribute to the composer’s old shipmates from World War ll – a work that certainly evokes a sense of past endeavours and the recalling of those times by old comrades). Jason Thornton, who has led the orchestra at many venues throughout the West and South-West of England, conducts the performance.

Finally, Chandos scales the heights of the English choral and organ-music tradition, with twelve works by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) – organist and choirmaster of Worcester Cathedral, whose life there, and world of music, faced destruction when Cromwell’s forces occupied the city during the Civil War, and (as Jeremy Summerly’s booklet note observes) “ripped the organ out of the cathedral”. A convinced Royalist, Tomkins clearly saw a connection between the kingdom of God, and the kingdom to which he gave his emotional and political allegiance. A Jubilate (for ten-part choir with organ), a Te Deum (for the same forces) and Magnificat (five-part choir) demonstrate the exceptional vocal training and tradition of the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge (Director of Music, Andrew Nethsingha). The anthem, When David heard that Absalom was Slain, conveys a profound sense of mourning, as does the introspective organ piece, A Sad Pavan for These Distracted Times – a lonely lament for the imperilled kingdom, dismantled state and demise of a King. The Editor will forgive me, and I hope, indulge me – if I tell readers that this edition of Endnotes was written on the day of the Scottish referendum.

Stuart Millson is the classical music critic of Quarterly Review

11 March – Northern lights, western winds

3 February 2014 – Chamber cornucopia

January 2014 – Manon, Royal Opera House

7 January 2014 – Stuart Millson interviews violinist Tasmin Little

17 December 2013 – Zemlinsky at the Hampstead Arts Festival

10 December 2013 – Anita Hartig, Mats Knutsson at the Romanian Cultural Institute

2 December 2013 – Sullivan, Adams, Moeran, Britten

15 November 2013 – review of Paul Kildea’s biography of Britten

22 October 2013 – Prokofiev, Szymanowski, Vaughan Williams and Arnold

11 October 2013 – Bruckner from Saarbrucken

9 September 2013 – Wagner, D’Indy, Handel and Verdi

21 August 2013 – Barbaja, Bantock, Elgar, Walton, Tchaikovsky

16 July 2013 – Vaughan Williams and Howells

26 June 2013 – farewelling Aldeburgh

12 June 2013 – Peter Grimes at Aldeburgh

6 June 2013 – Casella and Vaughan Williams

20 May 2013 – O’Neill, Vivaldi and Hess

 


Stuart Millson on classical music

An eastern European revelation

The Unknown Enescu – Volume One. Music for Violin

Toccata Classics, TOCC 0047

I first became acquainted with George Enescu’s music on the pre-penultimate night of the 1983 Proms season. Preceding the Liszt Second Piano Concerto and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, was a softly-spoken miniature of grace and elegance: the Prélude à l’unisson et menuet lent, conducted by (Transylvanian-born) Erich Bergel – an interesting, craftsman-like musician whose qualities deserved greater recognition, certainly in England.

Local colour, the vitality of regional dances and a distinctive ancestral accent seem to be characteristic of Eastern Europe’s composers, and Enescu is no exception. Like Bartok and Kodaly, his roots are clearly displayed in his music, but exactly how can you summarise this spirit? Bartok is known for his powerful engine-like rhythms – music that drives forward relentlessly at the very edge of tonality, but then might suddenly stop in a tender moment of memory or folk song. Kodaly’s folk-dances announce themselves in a rich orchestration, as do Enescu’s orchestral Romanian Rhapsodies; but in the composer’s chamber works, it is as though someone is gently ushering you into a salon, held in a well-to-do house or mansion of the Austro-Hungarian empire, or presenting a group of instrumentalists performing for their own pleasure in an open-air setting.

The Unknown Enescu brought me (in my mind’s eye) into those two worlds, almost simultaneously. The disc consists of chamber music of the purest, most natural lyrical quality one could imagine: undemonstrative, yet with a glow of passion in its innermost heart; direct, tranquil, unrushed, yet with a seriousness, too.

This is music for quiet moments, and even when in obvious folk-mood, Enescu gives us not red-blooded riotousness, but sounds that seem wreathed in summer or autumnal light – heart and spirit, and beautiful writing in every passage.

George Enescu was born in Dorohoi, Romania, on the 19th August 1881, and died in Paris in the May of 1955. He studied in Vienna and Paris, and made his debut as a violinist at the age of seven. He taught in the French capital and in Bucharest – and the great virtuoso violinists, Menuhin, Grumiaux, and the brilliant Ida Haendel (a Proms regular – and very fine Elgar interpreter), were among his students. As a composer, Enescu’s output was comparatively small, but he did produce an opera, entitled Oedipe (first performed in 1936), and the body of chamber works which Toccata has assembled on its enterprising label.

Volume One of The Unknown Enescu contains 13 pieces (mainly from the late 19th and early 20th centuries) – works such as Légende, Airs dans le genre roumain, a Prélude and Gavotte, and a Fantasie concertainte. A two-minute Andantino malinconico dates from 1951 – the latest work in the collection, and one of the last works he produced. The disc begins with an Aubade from 1899 – a gentle, slow country-dance form which Enescu penned during a period spent in the Carpathian Mountains; and the accompanying programme notes (the brilliant scholarship of Malcolm MacDonald) identify the “Romanian folklore”, and the “veins of Impressionism” and Fauré-like aristocratic intricacy” which shape and inform his style.

My personal favourite, though, is the Serenade Lointaine, of 1903, written for the wedding anniversary of the King and Queen of Romania – the Romanian royal family bestowing great patronage on Enescu throughout his life. In its four-and-a-half minutes, the work brings the romantic hue of Tchaikovsky to mind, with touching, heartfelt (almost melancholy) melodies and phrases, yet with the classical economy and facility of J.S. Bach – a composer venerated by the Romanian.

The recording is, as one would expect from Toccata, of the highest quality: there is clarity, “air” and almost a sense of friends just gathering and playing for the pleasure of it. The sound of the instruments is captured in such a way, as to create an immediate, concert-hall presence and chamber-music proximity – as if you are sitting in the front rows of the Wigmore Hall itself, although the recordings were made in Broadcasting House, Bucharest, and at the University of Illinois. And the standard of playing from Enescu’s dedicated exponents, the pianist, Ian Hobson, and cellists Marin Cazacu and Dmitry Kousov, to name but three, seems to be perfection itself. For those who know only the Romanian Rhapsodies, or who have never heard a note of Enescu’s music, the chamber works collected on this CD are a revelation – and a true delight for the romantic-of- heart and the serious-of-mind.

Stuart Millson is the Quarterly Review’s Music Editor

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ENDNOTES

Stuart Millson on classical music

From ancient mountains and dales…the life and music of Arwel Hughes

We tend to think of British music, and the landscape of the British repertoire, as belonging to the world of composers such as Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten – all Englishmen. But imagine, if you will, not a traditional, visionary Southern English landscape, but the valleys of Cardiganshire, the crags and peaks of Snowdonia, and the ruined castles and spate-rivers which can be found throughout the land of Wales. The silences (save for the sound of the wind and sea, and the piercing cry of buzzards circling on high pillars of warm air) make the wild Welsh landscape a place of legend, poetry and brooding thoughts; and it is from these surroundings that another school of British music may be found and appreciated, the school of the 20th century Welsh romantics and romantic-modernists: Alun Hoddinott, William Mathias, Daniel Jones, Grace Williams, and Arwel Hughes.

For Hoddinott, Welsh landscape and lore provided a huge source of inspiration, but his work also included pieces that stood alone from “Welshness” and demonstrated a pure, contemporary appeal, such as The Sun, the Great Luminary of the Universe (recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra and David Atherton – a specialist in 20th century music). Mathias and Daniel Jones are known for their symphonies (Jones also achieving note as a prolific writer of string quartets), and Grace Williams for her Sea Sketches and Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Rhymes, but it is the name of Arwel Hughes that might be less familiar to music-lovers – certainly to an English audience. The time has now come to rediscover British music, to understand it through its Welsh voice, and in particular, to hear and love the beautiful compositions of Arwel Hughes, the quiet magus of Welsh music.

Arwel Hughes was born in 1909, in the mining village of Rhosllannerchrugog, near Wrexham. The closeness of Welsh communities is one of the great characteristics of that nation, and Arwel Hughes’s background was one shaped by family, by the kindness of a very musical elder brother, and by the nonconformist, Baptist traditions of the people. Yet that world of self-containment need not be inward-looking, and it was clear that the musical talents of the young Arwel Hughes would propel him toward an academic musical career of the highest quality. His son, the conductor Owain Arwel Hughes, wrote of those early years:

“My father was a highly-gifted keyboard player from a very young age, quite astonishing when one thinks of his upbringing as the tenth and youngest child of a mining family with no musical heritage whatsoever. He went to the Royal College of Music to study composition and organ, a courageous decision, not to say a huge financial burden considering his background.”

And what a step it proved to be for the young Welshman alone in London, as Owain Arwel explained.

“My father studied composition under that musical giant Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose influence was profound not only as an inspiring teacher but also as a gentle, caring father figure…”

Vaughan Williams was not the only luminary to influence Arwel Hughes: other tutors included Gordon Jacob (who arranged Vaughan Williams’s English Folk-Song Suite), and the great Gustav Holst – and it was not long before the student from North Wales was absorbed into the English High Church musical tradition, as an organist and choirmaster at the Church of St. Philip and St. James, Oxford. In 1935, the chance came to return to Wales in a role for the BBC, that of Studio Assistant at the Corporation’s offices in Cardiff – the prelude to a successful career that was to last until 1971, when Arwel Hughes retired from the post of Head of Music.

During the long span of those BBC years, Arwel Hughes devoted much time to championing his fellow Welsh composers, and it has been said that this generosity of spirit may have interrupted his own progress as a writer of symphonic works. However, time was found in the evening to compose, and there is no doubting the natural inspiration and gift for momentum, mood and melody at the heart of Arwel Hughes’s wide output. It is also worth noting that this quiet and unassuming administrator (alongside his Welsh BBC colleague, the conductor, Mansel Thomas) gave us one of the country’s much-loved television institutions, Songs of PraiseDechrau Canu, Dechrau Canmol was a Welsh programme devoted to community hymn-singing, and it was always Arwel Hughes’s desire to see music – whether religious, or otherwise – actively touch the hearts and daily lives of ordinary people. The formula was taken up by the English BBC – and how fitting that the show should have been presented by that great Welshman, Sir Harry Secombe!

Possibly Arwel Hughes’s best-known piece is the highly-accessible oratorio, Dewi Sant (Saint David), commissioned as a Welsh contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain. For soprano, tenor, baritone, chorus and large orchestra, the work begins with a flourish –

“Praise the Lord for all of His saints

Praise the Lord for David our Patron…”

Straightforward and a showpiece for a Welsh choir, the opening section then gives way to a meditative pastoralism, every bit as touching as the English masses and impressionism of Vaughan Williams and Howells:

“Who’ll bring his sickle to the yellowing wheat and his scythe to the meadow at morn?/

Who’ll come to burn the tares that choketh the rip’ning corn?”

But also some blood-stirring lines for chapel-going Welsh patriots are included:

“In Cymru’s vineyard the tree was planted;

Fed were its roots with the blood of the martyrs,

Beneath its bloody branch is shelter,

Find refuge and rest in the arms of the Saviour,/

For on this precious tree doth grow the leaves to heal the nation’s woe.”

The words for Dewi Sant were written by Arwel Hughes’s fellow countryman, the poet, Aneurin Talfan Davies, and the work was first performed at that great shrine to Celtic Christendom, St. David’s Cathedral, Pembroke, on the 12th of July in that momentous Festival of Britain year.

Another well worked-out piece – finely-structured, again accessible yet with a deep saying – is the comparatively early Fantasia in A Minor, for strings (1936). It is a piece of “absolute music” – music for music’s sake, although if it has a sense of Cambrian identity, the Welshness is one of impressionism and shadow. The composition is immediately appealing: a quiet, slow introduction, and the gradual gathering of energy, to achieve the soaring, intense statement on strings to be found in Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, in parts of Herbert Howell’s Elegy for Viola and Strings – or in the introspection of Britten’s Lachrymae for viola and strings.

More obviously Welsh themes appear in Arwel Hughes’s Owain Glyndwr (from 1979), Anatiomaros (“Great Soul”) (1943), his Prelude (in part, a miniature non-choral requiem) “To the Youth of Wales” from 1945, and an opera, inspired by folk legends, entitled Menna – a spirit in operatic writing, reminiscent of the English composer Rutland Boughton’s ancient Arthurian and mystical dramas, or of Delius’s Irmelin. Apart from the whole of Menna (which has received at least one studio performance by the BBC Concert Orchestra), all of the Arwel Hughes works mentioned in this article have appeared on record,* under the baton of the composer’s son – and it is gratifying to know that the innovative Swedish record label, BIS, has provided such a wonderful opportunity for Arwel Hughes’s music to reach a much wider audience. Performed by Camerata Wales and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the BIS compact discs offer unique interpretations, and represent a rare discovery of work which should be at the very centre of British musical life.

There is one stirring piece that has not, as yet, been recorded for posterity. Written especially for the Welsh Proms at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff (a concert series founded in 1986 by Owain Arwel Hughes), it is that national favourite – God Bless the Prince of Wales. A magnificent arrangement of a traditional hymn of praise to Wales and its Prince, Arwel Hughes conceived the work as a Welsh version of Jerusalem – something noble and heroic for a Celtic audience to sing at the end of their promenade concerts. With its evocations of “ancient mountains and lovely dales”, and the spirit of the people who dwell there, a nostalgia – or sense of hiraeth – fills the concert-hall.

It is difficult to understand why the works of this pupil of Vaughan Williams and master in his own right should be in any way rare, or unfamiliar. But perhaps, the dedicated work of the composer’s son will succeed in bringing Arwel Hughes to the central position in our cultural and concert life which he richly and truly deserves.

Stuart Millson is the Quarterly Review’s Music Editor

NOTES

* Only the Prelude to Menna appears on disc.

The BIS record label has recorded the Fantasia in A Minor, and orchestral works such as Anatiomaros and Owain Glyndwr on two finely-engineered and presented CDs. The catalogue numbers are: BIS-CD-1589 (for the Fantasia) and BIS-CD-1674 (orchestral works). The oratorio Dewi Sant appears on the Chandos record label, no. 8890. All works are conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes CBE.

More details on the life of Arwel Hughes can be found in Owain Arwel Hughes’ autobiography, My Life in Music, published by the University of Wales Press.

 

 

 

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