The Music Room, Gregynog, near Newtown, Montgomeryshire.
Stephen Wilkinson (b.1919) – Dover Beach
Joseph Ryelandt (1870-1965) – from Missa, Op. 111; Kyrie
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) – In Youth is Pleasure
Frederick Delius (1862-1934) – On Craig Ddu
André Laporte (b.1931)- From Songs of Innocence: ‘Introduction’; ‘the Lamb’; ‘A Cradle Song’
Ryelandt, arr. Bo Holten – Weemoed (Melancholy)
Hubert Parry (1848-1918) – From Songs of Farewell: ‘There is an old belief’
Howells – Inheritance
Kurt Bikkembergs (b.1963) – Im Nebel
William Walton (1902-1983) – A Litany
Peter Warlock (1894-1930) – The shrouding of the Duchess of Malfi
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) – Death on the Hills, Op. 72
Vic Nees (1936-2013) – De Profundis
Raymond Schroyens (b.1933) – from Pentalpha: ‘O als ik dood zal zijn’
Howells – Blessed are the dead
Piet Swerts (b.1961) – War (Gregynog Festival commission)
Flemish Radio Choir
Director – Bart Van Reyn
A quick glance at the above programme suffices to show that this début concert in Wales by the Flemish Radio Choir brought together many compositional strands. The theme of the concert – like that of the entire Gregynog Festival of which it formed the culmination – was war; specifically here as for the Festival’s second half, World War I. Across Wales there have already been a number of arts events offered this year in centennial remembrance of that appalling conflict, which shattered so many illusions of Western civilisation along with countless lives across Europe and beyond. But, for Festival curator Dr Rhian Davies, the Great War has long been a subject of particular music-historical interest. Gregynog 2014 bore many fruits of her decades of devoted research into previously undocumented and unpublished material.
Davies was especially keen to unearth ‘the fascinating lost narrative of the Belgian refugee musicians who were helped to safety by [famous philanthropists and artistic patrons] Gwendoline and Margaret Davies [no relation] and their stepmother Elizabeth’, formerly of Gregynog Hall in Montgomeryshire. This choral concert sought to bring Wales and Flanders together once again in discovery as well as commemoration, with old and new works by little known Flemish composers programmed alongside pieces by key English figures of Edwardian musical life and later – some with direct links to Wales (Warlock himself lived for a time in Montgomeryshire and Delius’s On Craig Ddu made a lovely addition to the programme). Of the thirteen composers performed, five are still living, with two – including Piet Swerts, composer of this year’s Festival commission – born very much post-World War II.
However, despite spanning many decades and springing from many diverse lives, nearly all the works chosen had in common that each was written in an individual style firmly rooted in Western choral traditions traceable to the 19th century; this concert was not about the dissonant – and often dissenting – modernism bursting onto European concert platforms at the time of WWI, but rather a quieter, but equally deeply felt, personal reflection and anguish. Of course, the Great War’s social and political consequences are still unfolding a hundred years on. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of that time as revealed by this wide-ranging programme of miniatures and extracts was the palpable sense of uncertainty, nostalgia and loss shared by a large swathe of English composers in particular at the passing of an era in many respects already long gone by the outbreak of war in 1914.
The concert had a narrative arc intended to reflect the changing fortunes of many soldiers in the trenches – which, interestingly, of these composers, only Jules Toussaint-De Sutter actually became, as a cannoneer at the Yser front in 1917. Accordingly, the programme went from carefree youthfulness and idealism to disillusionment and despair upon encounter with the horrific realities of war. Text settings of a brightly optimistic folk character (such as Howells’ In youth is pleasure) and other songs of innocence and farewell (Laporte’s ‘The Lamb’, Parry’s There is an old belief), quickly gave way to grim musings upon death (Elgar’s Death on the Hills, Op. 72) and desolate expressions of religious belief (Nees’ De Profundis), culminating with Swerts’ simple and evocative setting of the profoundly moving ‘Rhyfel’ (‘War’) by Welsh poet Hedd Wyn – who himself, of course, became all too familiar with the trenches, dying at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 aged just thirty.*
It was thanks to the impressively well-modulated performances of the choir under conductor Bart Van Reyn that the concert avoided becoming disjointed, with so many short pieces being asked to convey so much intensely poignant history. The choir’s sound was richly balanced and nuanced throughout, with fine attention to articulative detail – although, for me, the performances became almost too smooth emotionally one upon the other; each piece emphasised superbly crafted phrasing and rounded consonants, all executed with such dynamic control and polished ensemble that, perversely, the cumulative effect became almost disturbing as an imagined foil to the boredom, terror, filth, mayhem and carnage that would surely have characterised life at the front.
However, the sheer poise of the choir was eloquent of dignity in the face of man’s inhumanity to man. After all, the concert hardly set out to paint a picture of raw emotion or of a battle front, but to give voice to a generation if not entirely lost, then struggling against inconceivable odds to find its way. And in that it generously succeeded, with each piece seeming to add yet another layer to a tale of mass upheaval and suffering comprising countless individual experiences from the heart-warmed to the traumatised. On the one hand, thorny issues of politics and pacifism were neatly avoided with this choice of repertoire but, on the other, the lack of any kind of overtly nationalist sentiment or propagandist statement was a relief.
Compositionally, the Howells and Warlock stood out for their taut expressivity and subtle economy of vocal part-writing, and it was most satisfying to hear composers such as Ryelandt, Nees and Schroyens alongside familiar figures of the English establishment, without the Belgians’ works being reduced to curios; Brussels, after all, is nearer to London than is Edinburgh, and it is about time that we in the UK stopped treating the so-called English Channel and North Sea as cultural barriers. On that score, Wilkinson’s Dover Beach was a worthy addition, if not perhaps the strongest – but there was real poignancy in Hedd Wyn’s poem having been set by a composer hailing from the land wherein the poet fell. Swerts brought his piece off with requisite grace, albeit straining my interest in repeated sequential cadences by the end.
Indeed, if there was any discernible harmonic trope throughout the concert, the resolution of gentle dissonance would have been it. But the clear highlight for me happened to be the most harmonically adventurous work: Kurt Bikkemberg’s Im Nebel, a setting of Hermann Hesse’s exquisite poem about wandering in the mists – surely an apt metaphor for many kinds of no man’s land. This had vivid, colouristic cluster chords which pulsed with energy, making the most of the choir’s impeccable sonic richness. These days, it is a refreshing change to come across a composer whose musical style has apparently gone from gentle modal romanticism to atonality and a more daring use of contrapuntal rhythmic techniques rather than the other way around. I look forward to hearing more of Bikkemberg’s music, grateful that it was this moving remembrance of World War I from the Gregynog Festival which led me to it.
* Coincidentally, the bard’s chair which was draped in black in remembrance of Hedd Wyn upon his posthumous victory at the National Eisteddfod was hand crafted by a Flemish carpenter, Eugeen Vanfleteren, who had fled to England at the outbreak of war and settled in Birkenhead.
original illustration by Dean Lewis