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ALUN HODDINOTT: Song Cycles and Folksongs

Landscapes (Ynys Mon), Two Songs of Glamorgan, The Silver Hound, One Must Always Have Love, Towy Landscape, Six Welsh Folksongs

Claire Booth (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone), Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano), Michael Pollock (Secondo piano: Towy Landscape)

BMS437CD [60:07]

A fitting farewell from the doyen of Welsh composers, Alun Hoddinott (1929-2008).

I have long associated the distinguished late Welsh composer with large-scale orchestral works, symphonies, tone poems and concertos.

Hoddinott burst onto the musical scene at the Cheltenham Festival in 1954, when the score of his lively, and immediately charming, Clarinet Concerto was selected by Sir John Barbirolli for inclusion in that year’s festival. It was performed by Gervase de Peyer and the Halle Orchestra.

From then up until his death in 2008, the composer enjoyed a constant stream of major commissions. One of Hoddinott’s final pieces, Towy Landscape, is poignantly included on this outstanding CD produced by the British Music Society.

The disc opens with Landscspes (Ynys Mon), a dramatic evocation of the composer’s native Wales. Originally written for the great tenor Stewart Burrows, with words by Emyr Humphreys, Landscapes is a topographical study of the ancient isle of Anglesey off the North Wales peninsula. Hoddinott is at turns both epic and intimate in his depiction of Humphreys’ lavish texts. We are transported from Roman ruins, views of Snowdonia, the Harlech Dome to intimate beaches where lovers meet and to a now deserted grand manor house, which was once alive with minstrels and activity.

Tenor Nicky Spence gives a performance of real distinction, capturing every detail of the text. His clean and robust sound is thrilling when enraptured with the music’s drama, and almost whispers voyeuristically in telling the listener of the many paths on Traeth Bychan, a beach where lovers wander. Spence works very well with his gifted collaborator at the piano Andrew Matthews-Owen, as he word paints over very rich textures which are perfectly judged by the pianist.

The tenor is equally at home in the more mysterious cycle The Silver Hound, which charts the 7 ages of a man’s life, asking, finally, ‘Did seven selves make one man whole?’ Here, Hoddinott’s stark sound is at its most impressive. Ursula Vaughan Williams’ texts – Hoddinott collaborated with the poet, and wife of RVW, on a number of vocal/choral works – allow for moments of musical reflection and stillness. As we listen, we ponder life’s journey from ebullient Schoolboy and Soldier to reflective aged man at the end of his travels. A very appealing cycle.

Contrasting these deeply serious works are two sets of folksongs, again written for Stewart Burrows. These songs bare witness to the courtly ‘enterainment’ music ,which Hoddinott, like Sir Malcolm Arnold, could so easily turn his hand to.

The Two Songs of Glamorgan have a mysterious Housman-esque feel to them, which nicely breaks up the seriousness of Landscapes and The Silver Hound. The real gems however, are the Six Welsh Folksongs (English translations by Rhiannon Hoddinott, the composer’s wife), which are immediately charming. The first and fifth are perfect in their effect and Ap Shenkin is a jolly farmer’s romp, which works very well indeed.

Most of this disc is devoted to songs for the tenor voice, but very effective contrast is allowed through the inclusion of Hoddinott’s later cycle for soprano One Must Always Have Love. The work is comprised of four songs, poems by Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Alice Bliss and WB Yeats. They are marked with a sense of real abandonment, almost rapture, conveyed with customary excellence by soprano Claire Booth who obviously relishes the variety offered by each of these four musings on love.

Booth is on equally dramatic and persuasive form in the composer’s final work for the human voice, Towy Landscape.

This is a special piece. One can only wonder, as Hoddinott wrote this rich depiction of the Towy landscape where he grew up and later retired on the Gower Peninsula, if the composer knew the end was in sight? He lavishes his technical mastery on this impressive ‘scena’ where 5 movements connect seamlessly to the magic of John Dyer’s texts. Words which the great painter John Piper, a close friend and collaborator to both Hoddinott and Benjamin Britten, returned to again and again for inspiration. Such fruits are left to us in Piper’s many canvasses, which capture the dramatic Welsh countryside, as seen on the cover of this CD. Grongar Hill, Camarthenshire, is mentioned in Towy Landscape (Thou, thou awerful Grongar’) and is reproduced on the disc’s very beautifully presented cover. A nice touch.

What marks Towy Landscape is it’s scoring for soprano, baritone and piano duet. Each of the five songs in the work is either shared by the two voices, or delivered as a solo. The potential for expression in having 4 hands at one piano sees Hoddinott in his element and the pianists revel with the rich and dense harmonies. Booth soars over these almost orchestral sounds but is somewhat occluded by the baritone of Jeremy Huw Williams. I am not convinced his is the most fitting voice for such a lustrous score. I should have liked a warmer sound with more body to it. Neverthless, this stands as one of Hoddinott’s most important chamber works and rewards repeated listening.

This is a disc of Alun Hoddinott’s cycles and songs for high voice and we have two of our finest young singers in Nicky Spence and Claire Booth as advocates. Their pianist, Andrew Matthews-Owen, is relatively new to me - tho I have caught him previously in a moving recital of contemporary song with Booth in 2009. Special mention must be given to his perceptive reponses to each of the singer’s reflections. Matthews-Owen’s rich sweeping sound works marvelously in Landscapes, The Silver Hound and Towy Landscape but, like Spence, he tones it down to perform with touching simplicity in the folksongs.

Texts for all works are supplied in the liner notes by the Welsh writer and composer Geraint Lewis, along with performer biographies, and a fascinating essay on Hoddinott (and his unjustly neglected operas).

Caroline McGee