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A Garland for Presteigne - Twelve New Songs Celebrating the Welsh Borders
James Francis BROWN (b. 1969)

Words

John McCABE (b. 1939)

Two Gladestry Quatrains: Gwaithla Brook; Cefn hir
Hilary TANN (b. 1947)

Wings of the Grasses

Rhian SAMUEL (b. 1944)

A Perfect View

Geraint LEWIS (b. 1958)

My Paradise Garden

John JOUBERT (b. 1927)

Shropshire Hills

Cecilia McDOWALL (b. 1951)

The Buzzard

Michael BERKELEY (b. 1948)

Nettles; Tall Nettles
David MATTHEWS b. 1943)

For a Wine Festival

Adrian WILLIAMS (b. 1956)

Red Kite Flying

Gillian Keith (soprano) Simon Lepper (piano)
Recorded 3rd and 4th January 2004, Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London DDD
METRONOME MET CD 1065 [43:00]

 

Little could Adrian Williams have known when he founded the Presteigne Festival in 1982, that twenty one years on it would be celebrating its coming of age in such resounding health. As the premier Welsh Borders music event now approaches its twenty-third year there have still been only two artistic directors in its history, Williams himself and George Vass, who took over the mantle in 1992.

The musical accent at Presteigne has always been a commitment to living composers. Not new music in the vein of the avant-gardist Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, but music that explores a strong melodic vein. Hence such figures as John McCabe, David Matthews, Michael Berkeley, Cecilia McDowall and Adrian Williams himself have become synonymous with the festival. Composers with a strong presence in recent years have included Robin Holloway and Joe Duddell amongst others, whilst the 2005 festival will see Ian Wilson as composer-in-residence as well as premieres of song cycles by David Matthews, McDowall and McCabe. There will also be centenary features celebrating the music of Tippett and Alan Rawsthorne. Not bad for a festival that began its life on a shoestring budget and a desperate plea for funding from Welsh Arts!

Of the ten composers commissioned for A Garland for Presteigne, most have seen their music performed at the festival on several occasions in the past with James Francis Brown and Geraint Jones (the latter well known as successor to William Mathias in the role of Artistic Director of the North Wales International Music Festival) receiving festival commissions for the first time.

It is Brown’s contribution, Words, that commences the cycle, a rapturous setting of Edward Thomas celebrating the Welsh hills and Herefordshire. The language is strongly lyrical and it is interesting to note the occasional hint of Tippett; surprising perhaps for the youngest of the composers represented. Visitors to the Festival will know that John McCabe has been a regular presence over the years both as composer and pianist. His Two Gladestry Quatrains are settings of Jo Shapcott, Gladestry being the local village in which the poet has been resident for some years. The words themselves are reworkings of Rilke’s French poems, McCabe setting the first in a scherzando-like manner, nimble and fleeting whilst the second, Cefn Hir floats a gently soaring vocal line over a simple, chordal yet magically effective piano accompaniment. South Wales-born Hilary Tann currently lives and works in the United States although her music has been heard regularly at Presteigne. Wings of the Grasses sets a nature-inspired text by Menna Elfyn that encapsulates a recurring theme in the Tann’s music. A Perfect View by Rhian Samuel, another Welsh composer with American connections, initially comes across as one of the more adventurous contributions in terms of its musical language. Its passage however soon takes a different path, progressing to a concluding unadorned major chord on the words "shower of gold". The centrepiece of the cycle, Geraint Lewis’s My Paradise Garden, is also the longest of the songs at a fraction under nine minutes. A touching, melodically appealing response to Cecilia Chance’s idyllic picture of old age spent in a country garden, this is the most stylistically conservative of the songs, imbued with an obvious feeling of nostalgia and sentimentality. In Shropshire Hills, South African-born John Joubert, for many years a lecturer at the University of Birmingham, turns to a text by Stephen Tunnicliffe. Joubert’s music accurately reflects the often-austere view that Tunnicliffe takes of the Shropshire landscape. Landscape is also evident in Cecilia McDowall’s The Buzzard, the vocal line charting Simon Mundy’s succinct evocation of the archaeology and landline of the Radnor valley. Alongside John McCabe, Michael Berkeley is the only other composer to contribute two songs. Nettles and Tall Nettles are settings of A.E. Housman and Edward Thomas respectively, the Housman a dark response to the poet’s words of love resulting in tragedy. Tall Nettles explores austere yet more lyrical territory. David Matthews takes us into mellower surroundings with his For a Wine Festival, a song of fruitful grape harvests with words by Swansea poet Vernon Watkins. It is difficult to imagine a more fitting song to conclude the cycle than Adrian Williams’ Red Kite Flying, a soaring, emotionally exhilarating portrait of the Red Kite flying over the Radnorshire hills, lifting the heavy heart of the commentator. The fact that the words are by Williams himself (although he initially chose not to disclose this in the run up to the premiere) more than hints at a biographical connection.

There are numerous past examples of collaborative works such as this that can seem cobbled together with little or no overall feeling of consistency or satisfaction. What sets this cycle apart for me however is the careful choice of composers. Whilst there are subtle differences of language there is also a sense of cohesion present that makes this one of the most successful ventures of its kind that I am familiar with. Canadian soprano Gillian Keith is by turns sensitive and muscular where required and is a singer that I suspect we will hear considerably more of in the future. Simon Lepper is a young accompanist with a reputation that has grown rapidly of late and on the evidence here, deservedly so.

With a total playing time of just under forty-two minutes it is a shame that another song cycle by a composer associated with the festival could not have been included to give the disc a more respectable duration. These days a disc of less than three quarters of an hour is short thrift indeed. Look on it as a case of quality rather than quantity however and you will not go too far wrong.

Christopher Thomas



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