Four Major Welsh Composers: a Tŷ Cerdd Showcase with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales


BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, June 7

Alun Hoddinott – Overture, Jack Straw
William Mathias – Concerto for Piano No. 2
Grace Williams – Fairest of Stars
Daniel Jones – Symphony No. 10

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Soprano – Elin Manahan Thomas
Piano – Llŷr Williams
Conductor Grant Llewellyn


The launch of Tŷ Cerdd Records at the Wales Millennium Centre on June 5 signalled a much-anticipated resurgence for Music Centre Wales, and the start of a significant project in Tŷ Cerdd’s bid to put Welsh ‘classical’ music on the map. It also heralded the inauguration of an annual Tŷ Cerdd conference, with an array of workshops, talks and discussion forums on various aspects of Welsh music held this year over the weekend of June 6-8. Central to proceedings was a Saturday evening concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. This aimed to showcase the kind of hefty, serious works to be found in the Tŷ Cerdd Welsh Music Archive, and to draw attention to the four major – indeed foremost (if you pardon the pun) – Welsh composers of the twentieth century: Grace Williams, Daniel Jones and, of a younger generation, William Mathias and Alun Hoddinott.

If less familiar these days for his actual music, Hoddinott is at least likely to be a subconscious presence in the minds of Cardiff concert-goers as the dedicatee of this evening’s venue, the BBC Hoddinott Hall. In fact, he composed a boggling number of works – some 300 all told – across a vast array of genres from short orchestral pieces like the Jack Straw overture heard here, to symphonies, concertos, operas and chamber works. Born in Bargoed in 1929, Hoddinott studied at University College Cardiff, returning there to become Professor and Head of the Music Department from 1967-1987. He continued to compose right up until his death in 2008, producing music that is often darkly brooding, and written in a densely chromatic idiom more international than nationalist in outlook; Bartók and Hindemith, for example, were inspirational figures alongside English contemporaries such as his friend Alan Rawsthorne.

Jack Straw is hardly the most substantial of Hoddinott’s works, but packs much feverish activity into its concentrated five minutes, detailing the exploits of an important political figure; not the former foreign secretary, but one of the leaders of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. From jaunty dotted rhythms to dark fanfares, growling strings and vibraslap effects, colourful episodes flash by at breakneck speed before an oddly sudden fullstop on a major chord. With an ebullient Grant Llewellyn at the helm, the BBC NOW practically cartwheeled through it all before turning their attention to what turned out to be the most satisfying item on the programme: Mathias’ Piano Concerto No. 2.

Mathias was an almost exact contemporary of Hoddinott and the two mirrrored each other’s pedagogical roles, as Mathias became Professor and Head of Department of Music at the University of North Wales in Bangor from 1970-1988, amongst many important positions in the community including directorship of the North Wales Festival. He was born in Whitland in 1934 and studied at Aberystwyth University before heading to London’s Royal Academy of Music in the mid ‘50s. Here, he came into contact with the latest musical developments from continental Europe, but quickly decided that the avant-garde was not for him; ‘great meaningful simplicity is far more difficult to achieve than complexity. In our time we have had too much of the latter and too little of the former.’ These famous words, uttered not long before his too-early death in 1992, summed up his life-long attitude to his art; a vigorous, entirely unsentimental – and quite un-nationalistic – romanticism.

Mathias’ choral music in particular is much loved around the world but his piano concertos are generally agreed to be his best works, and the second, played here with loving attention to detail by soloist Llŷr Williams, marked the onset of his mature compositional development. Premièred at the 1961 Llandaff Festival, the spirit of Tippett is alive, if not consciously invoked, in each of the four contrasting movements. And yet the sound world is indubitably Mathias’ own, with a warm abundance of ideas and radiant, entirely unselfconscious scoring. Indeed, the most striking feature of this concerto is not so much its formal integrity nor the brilliance of its solo part – which are undoubted – but its sheer energy and generosity of spirit. Here, the BBC NOW rose to support Llŷr Williams in kind, albeit with the occasional untidy passage, supplying rhythmic verve, deep, sweeping strings and a rich sectional interplay. This is a superbly-written, substantial piece by any standards, and long deserving of entry into the concerto canon. Happily, this evening’s performance (with those untidy passages re-done) was recorded to form part of a forthcoming CD of Mathias’ music to be issued in November by the newly-launched Tŷ Cerdd records – only the second time the concerto has been committed to disc.

The second half of the concert offered further interesting works, if not of the concerto’s calibre. Barry-born Grace Williams (1906-1977) was not only a ‘Welsh composer’, but remains to this day oft-labelled a ‘woman composer’ – as distinct from simply being a ‘composer’. That both qualifiers might still be regarded as novel in some arenas is a situation long demanding of change, and Williams undoubtedly suffered as a woman in an almost exclusively male environment. She is the only composer of these four to have embarked on serious studies in Central Europe – in Vienna with Egon Wellesz after studies in London at the Royal College of Music in the 1930s alongside such luminaries as Britten (she turned down a request to become his assistant). Much of her music shows an equal urge towards intense Germanic romanticism and a perhaps more ‘Celtic’, but certainly highly personal and nature-inspired, sound world, towards which she increasingly turned after moving back to Barry in 1947.

Fairest of Stars (1973), a setting of words from Milton’s Paradise Lost for soprano and orchestra, is a poignant reminder of Williams’ regret that ‘when people see my … folk song arrangements and Fantasias … it is so easy for them to forget that I also write full scale serious works.’ Far from the fey suggestivity of the title, this piece is thickly Straussian in both texture and seriousness; too much so, I would argue, for the soloist on this occasion. Elin Manahan Thomas has a voice of striking beauty, and which can shine in other repertoire, but it is simply not weighty nor rich enough to carry this part. Here, the winner was the orchestra, who embraced with great vigour Williams’ sensuous, almost erotic palette of surging runs, harp glissandi and complex, full-bloodied strings.

Density and concision were twin features of the final work on this solid and absorbing programme, composed by a good friend of Williams’ and a fellow struggling freelance. The name Daniel Jones will be familiar to audiences not so much for his centenary in 2012, but for another of his close friendships; that with Dylan Thomas, whose own centenary has become all but inescapable this year. Fewer might be aware that Jones was one of the most inventive and prolific symphonists Wales has yet produced, with an intriguing, unique style pitched somewhere between romanticism and modernism; a sometimes uncomfortable marriage in Jones’ case, which may well have contributed to his having fallen between the cultural cracks.

Born in Pembroke, Jones’ family moved to Swansea, from where he left for the Royal Academy of Music and thence, after travelling in Europe, to study with Patrassi in Rome. After the war – spent at Bletchley Park as a code-breaker – he resettled in Swansea, eventually producing thirteen symphonies amongst other, considerable pieces (including eight string quartets) before his death in 1993. The Symphony No. 10 heard here dates from 1980 and is a somber work punctuated by tolling bells, with tense, dissonant writing which utilises the composer’s trademark ‘complex metres’. Harmonically too, Jones had a method, if not a system per se; each of his first twelve symphonies is based on one of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. This 10th revolves around C sharp.

Judging by the BBC NOW’s scrappy ensemble in places, it is not just obtuse music, but also difficult to play (or at least, demanding of serious rehearsal time); though as much down to the composer as the performers, Llewellyn and orchestra struggled to find an overall direction, whilst the second movement 3 + 3 + 2 rhythm, for example, sounded more like 3 + 3 + 2 and-a-half. Clearly, Jones is a composer not to be underestimated, and I look forward to hearing a performance of this symphony which makes clearer whether or not his design of constantly thwarted striving can be made to work in practice. Highlights of the BBC NOW rendition here were Robert Plane’s brief clarinet solo in the third movement and moments of genuine ambiguity, rather than confusion, which surfaced through the seething mass of argument and counter-argument.

Investigating more of Jones the symphonist would certainly be worthwhile. Indeed, a forthcoming festival ‘My Friend Dylan Thomas’ organised by the Bangor University School of Music in association with Pontio (October 25-30, part of DT100) has not only been named for Jones’ memoir of the poet, but will feature a BBC NOW performance of his Symphony No. 4, dedicated to Thomas’s memory. Not only that, but the festival will feature new works by living Welsh and/or Wales-based composers John Rea, Guto Pryderi Puw and Andrew Lewis. Hopefully – and especially now that Tŷ Cerdd is getting the bit between its teeth – this and other events offer the prospect of the BBC NOW and further ensembles throughout the land taking up the cause of Welsh music with renewed vigour  – and not just in celebration of poets (however iconic), or in niche concerts, but on its own merits and as part of general repertoire.