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
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 Praise… Dechrau 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
* 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.