Steph Power was at the BBC Hoddinott Hall to review the second instalment of BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ Welsh Foundations series, conducted by Tecwyn Evans.
The writer and critic Guy Rickards once described Daniel Jones as ‘a Welsh COMPOSER rather than a WELSH composer, clearly belonging to the mainstream of post-war British music.’ While Alun Hoddinott’s particular brand of intense, dark-hued dissonance places him more obviously within the wider Europe of Bartók and Hindemith, the same might also be said of both he and William Mathias, exact contemporaries from the following generation. All three composers looked outwards beyond their homeland even as they pioneered classical composing within Wales – and as the younger pair worked to professionalise what still remained an essentially amateur music-making tradition: Hoddinott in the south, based at the University of Cardiff; Mathias in the north, based at the University of Bangor.
Music festivals were key in establishing a vigorous environment for new art music in Wales post-war. Jones, Hoddinott and Mathias became pillars of a burgeoning Welsh scene, enjoying close association with many bodies and institutions both local and further flung. The younger pair in particular were passionate, hands-on ambassadors, working tirelessly to promote new music in diverse arenas from education and broadcasting to commissioning and professional performance. Amongst many other projects, for example, Mathias founded the North Wales International Music Festival at St Asaph in 1972, directing it until his untimely death twenty years later.
However, it was the Swansea International Festival, founded in 1948 as the Swansea Festival of Music and Arts, that hovered not so quietly in the background of this second, ebullient Welsh Foundations concert from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Without it, we would not have Hoddinott’s The Sun, the Great Luminary of the Universe, or Mathias’s Piano Concerto No. 3; commissioned two years apart by the Swansea Festival (respectively 1970 and 1968). Nor would we have Jones’s unexpected, post-retirement Symphony in Memoriam John Fussell (1992), composed for his friend and long-time Swansea Music Director and City Organist after his death in 1990.
Completing the programme at Cardiff’s BBC Hoddinott Hall was The Grey Tide and the Green by Hilary Tann; born in Ferndale in 1947 – a year before the first ever Swansea Festival – Tann’s music doesn’t so much look beyond Wales as look fondly back to it from her home of many years in upstate New York, far across the Atlantic. Regardless of distance, Tann has a strong sense of Welsh identity, and she continues to be inspired by the landscape of her beloved valleys; invoking here as in so many of her works its stones, moorlands and mountains. This piece was commissioned by another venerable Welsh institution, the Welsh Proms, for its Last Night in 2001. Apropos the pageantry of that event, it proved lyrical and extrovert in the capable hands of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Tecwyn Evans. Brassy fanfares and sweeping, layered strings were offset by resonant bells in honour of R.S. Thomas; a poet whose work does not suggest bold gestures per se, but who Tann has set in dreamier guise. This work proved a highly personal tribute to him.
If one thing united the four, diverse pieces in this concert, it was a fecundity of colour, ideas and bustling energy. Before Tann came Hoddinott and then Mathias; The Sun… recalling another great literary figure, James Joyce, from whose A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man the title comes. At times violent and knottily dissonant, the work is like a sudden storm, squally and full of thunder. With angular melodies and suggestive chordal writing – including a startling, not entirely convincing quotation of J.S. Bach’s chorale, ‘Es ist genug’ – it was adroitly played.
More lithe was Mathias’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with its exuberant outer allegro movements contrasting a thoughtful, yet always joyful central adagio – vivace – adagio. Mathias was a superb pianist and premiered the work himself in reportedly swashbuckling style at Swansea. Here, soloist Llŷr Williams clearly relished the jazzy syncopations à la Gershwin – or perhaps Copland; contrasted with evocative, lightly rippling textures that hinted at Messiaen when most glittering, but always in Mathias’s own voice.
Generously written and full of spirit, the Mathias was given an engaging reading. So too for the most part was the more challenging Symphony, the concert’s main event. Perhaps one day Jones will be accorded his rightful place in history as a major British symphonist (and composer of string quartets, of which there are eight). In the meanwhile, a rousing yet considered, well-shaped performance of his music – as this one was – is too rare a treat.
With its material emanating from small motifs heard at the opening, this final symphony echoes the previous twelve in being tautly and imaginatively constructed in a dense, chromatic idiom that nevertheless speaks directly to the listener. It is an impressively wide-ranging work in technical and emotional scope, from opening to closing solenne. Yet this is no summation of a career, but a tribute to a dear friend – which at the same time manages to convey a youthful, forward-looking energy that belies the age of its composer. Indeed, the young Richard Strauss seemed close at times, in Jones’s near-exotic orchestration, with fervent brass and woodwind joining sturdy, unsentimental strings – and seven (!) percussionists plus timps, including some striking marimba writing.
If Daniel Jones – like Hoddinott – is least convincing where he quotes, we can at least see why he did so and salute the intention; here, in Welsh Foundations, the passage comes in the robust final movement, and is from Jones’s organ piece, Prelude – A Refusal to Mourn (titled after a poem by Dylan Thomas, another close friend of Jones). With the recent passing of the Welsh composers Mervyn Burtch and Peter Reynolds still raw, perhaps we might take comfort in the wider legacy of Daniel Jones, Hoddinott and Mathias, even as composers such as Tann and many others continue to build on their important work.
Welsh Foundations 2
BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, 25 November 2016
Alun Hoddinott: The Sun, the Great Luminary of the Universe (1970)
William Mathias: Piano Concerto No. 3 (1968)
Hilary Tann: The Grey Tide and the Green (2001)
Daniel Jones: Symphony in Memoriam John Fussell (Symphony No. 13) (1992)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Piano: Llŷr Williams
Conductor: Tecwyn Evans
The third and final Welsh Foundations concert is at BBC Hoddinott Hall, 2pm 27 January 2017
Header photo of Llŷr Williams, courtesy Victoria Rowsell Artist Management
Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.