This is a significant CD that seems to me to tidy up a lot of
loose ends. I do not mean to imply that somehow these works
are scraps or inconsequential. A brief look at the CD catalogue
shows that there are a fair number of major works by Mathias,
Hoddinott and Jones. These are by and large from the Lyrita
and Nimbus stables and more often than not represent a serous
diet of concertos, quartets, sonatas and symphonies. However
there is a definite shortfall in the lighter and more approachable
works from these three composers. Lyrita have presented here
a series of Welsh or Celtic inspired dances alongside an Overture
and Concerto Grosso by three of the most important composers
from the Principality. Each and every one of these works is
worthy of their composer and all deserve to be represented in
the CD catalogues.
I first came across Alun Hoddinott through an old Golden Guinea
LP (GSGC1410 7) that featured his Clarinet Sonata and String
Quartet No.1. It was coupled with two major chamber pieces by
Alan Rawsthorne. I guess that it was a strange introduction
to Hoddinott's music but it did introduce me to a composer
who seemed to cross the boundary between avant-garde and traditional
musical expression. It was not until a couple of years later,
when on holiday in Llandudno that I found the Pye BBC (RRC 22)
record of music from Wales that included a number of the works
that are performed on this present CD. These included the second
suite of the Welsh Dances, the Concerto Grosso,
the Investiture Dances and Mathias's Celtic Dances
and his Sinfonietta. It was a fine introduction to a really
attractive series of 'modern' yet approachable, works:
they have been unavailable to listeners for far too long.
There has been criticism or at least comments from reviewers
in the past that the Welsh Dances Op.15 owes much to
Malcolm Arnold for their melodic and rhythmic style. This is
not a problem. Like Arnold's famous two sets of English
Dances, Hoddinott's owe nothing to specific Welsh folk
or hymn tunes: they are a confection of images, impressions,
nods and winks to what may be perceived as Welsh music. The
Suite has four short movements that explore a number of typically
happy moods. The opening dance, begins with a pastoral woodwind
theme before the strings and orchestral elaborate. The presto
is a jig that has strings working out against some fine brass
writing. I love the moody 'nocturne', which is the slow
movement of this suite; it is truly reflective and dreamlike.
This music is like spending a summer's day sitting on the
coast of Anglesey watching the seabirds and small sailing boats
at Beaumaris. Yet, in a very small canvas, Hoddinott manages
to build up to an impressive climax. The last Dance breaks the
spell - it is pure Arnold with a Welsh accent. It is a whirlwind
of xylophone and percussion that finally ends with a bang. Interestingly
the Four Dances were premiered by the BBC Concert
Orchestra conducted by Vilem Tausky at the Royal Festival Hall
in 1959 so it fifty years old this year.
I agree, to a certain extent, with the Editor that there are
some problems with the Overture: Jack Straw (1964). He
suggests that it 'hangs together only loosely' and is
not completely convincing. Now, this overture has nothing to
do with the Honourable Member for Blackburn but is in fact inspired
by the fourteenth century English rebel who, together with Wat
Tyler and John Ball, led the Peasants Revolt. The overture was
originally composed in 1964 but was revised in 1980. Fundamentally,
there is nothing wrong with this piece, but a large amount of
material seems have been used in what is only a five-minute
work. It seems terribly wasteful and can lead to a feeling of
unease. If only Hoddinott could have expanded it a wee bit:
there are so many good ideas here that just cry out to be developed.
The Concerto Grosso No. 1 is a great piece. Written in 1966
for the 21st anniversary of the foundation of the
National Youth Orchestra of Wales, it is a perfect piece for
testing players' musical skills. The work is effectively
a 'concerto for orchestra' with each of the five movements
showcasing the different departments of the band. It is not
quite as straightforward as the Dances but there is certainly
nothing complicated or difficult: it is a perfectly approachable
piece from the first to the last note. It manages to maintain
a fine balance between exhilaration and sheer beauty. It is
good to have it back in the catalogue once again.
The Investiture Dances were composed in 1969 to commemorate
the Investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales. Interestingly
they were premiered in June 1969, a month before the ceremony
at Caernarfon Castle. There are three dances, with a haunting
'andante' framed by two exuberant and outgoing movements.
This is a fine work that once again reveals the composer as
capable of writing a genuinely popular work, but without a hint
of being patronising. It is a definite case of Hoddinott being
a kind of unofficial 'Master of the Prince's Music'
and doing a better job of it than some of the official incumbents
of his Mother's and Grandfather's office!
The second set of Welsh Dances Op.64 was written some eleven
years after the first set. They were another commission by the
National Youth Orchestra of Wales and were intended to be a
further part of the celebrations for the Investiture. They are
not based on folk tunes but rely on a distillation of Welsh
music as seen through the lens of a skilful composer who was
equally at writing both progressive and light music. The dances
are quite short with only the 'lento' being of considerable
weight and emotion. Hoddinott is a master of orchestration and
contrives to create a diverse texture of sound on a relatively
small canvas. The second movement 'presto' is a fine
example of the composer's skill. Yet it is the profound
slow movement that defines the entire work. The Investiture
was a serious occasion as well as being a celebration. Hoddinott
creates a misty impression with this music that is both evocative
and reflective. The last dance restores the sense of fun, however,
and the work ends in blaze of sound.
The music of William Mathias is nearly always approachable.
He is perhaps best remembered for his fine organ music and his
choral music where there is nearly always a feeling of genuine
communication with his audience as well as being to the highest
technical standard. Like Hoddinott, he never wrote down to his
audience. Yet Mathias also wrote an impressive array of orchestral
music, most of which is probably not well-known to the majority
of listeners. This is a pity. The Editor hits the nail on the
head when he describes him as 'a brilliant orchestral magician.'
Even the most cursory hearing of these Celtic Dances
reveals a work that sparkles, shimmers and quite simply entertains.
The composer wrote that he tried to 'reflect characteristics
in the music of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall and Britain
- whatever happened to the Isle of Man? He suggested that this
music was meant to exhibit sympathy for the mythological-past
expressed in a language of the twentieth century. There are
four well-balanced movements that explore his theme with a healthy
mix of joy, humour, wistfulness, warmth and vitality.
The work was composed for the 50th Anniversary of
the Urdd Gobaith Cymru (Welsh League of Youth) an organisation
happily still going strong with some fifty-thousand members.
Daniel Jones is a grossly underestimated composer. He is only
represented by two CDs dedicated to his magnificent symphonies
on Lyrita, and a couple of pieces here and there. The present
Dance Fantasy is a welcome addition to the short list
of works available. The piece was composed in August 1976 and
was commissioned for that year's North Wales Music Festival
and was first performed at St. Asaph by the BBC Welsh Symphony
Orchestra under the baton of Norman del Mar. It is a powerful
but ultimately jolly work that the composer has insisted could
be danced to throughout. Geraint Lewis writing Jones' obituary
in the Independent in 1993 suggests that 'The Welsh sense
of rhetoric is never far away from Jones's music and his most
frequently performed orchestral piece - the popular Dance Fantasy
(1976) is imbued with a stirringly Celtic sense of heraldic
display'. Just how much of Wales is here I am not sure -but
certainly there are nods to the Appalachian Spring and perhaps
even to Spain. Paul Conway writing in the liner notes that it
is 'Daniel Jones' most popular and frequently performed
work.' I guess that he is not really a 'household name'
but let us hope that this present CD will encourage more listeners
to explore his music.
Finally, the CD liner notes are good, the quality of the sound
is excellent and the playing seems to me to be both accurate
and enthusiastic. Altogether, this is a great CD that is packed
with interesting, if not absolutely essential, works. That said,
every enthusiast of British music will insist that this CD is
in their collection.
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