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Welsh Dances
Alun HODDINOTT (1929-2008)
Four Welsh Dances Op.15 (1958) [7:29]*
Overture, Jack Straw Op. 35 (1964) [5:02]**
Concerto Grosso No. 2 Op.46 (1966) [12:54]***
Investiture Dances Op. 66 (1969) [7:46]***
Welsh Dances, Set 2 Op.64 (1969) [9:03]***
William MATHIAS (1934-1992)
Celtic Dances Op.60 (1972) [14:02]***
Daniel JONES (1912-1993)
Dance Fantasy (1976) [7:42] ****
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Groves*
Philharmonia Orchestra/Charles Groves**
National Youth Orchestra of Wales/Arthur Davison***
BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson****
rec. Afan Lido, Port Talbot, Glamorgan, 1972 (EMI LP ASD2739) (op. 15); Brent Town Hall, Wembley, November 1980 (Unicorn Digital RHD401) (op. 35); 1974-5 (BBC LP REC222) (op. 46, 66, 64 Mathias); 1974-5 (BBC LP REGL359) (Jones). ADD/DDD
LYRITA SRCD.334 [64.31] 
Experience Classicsonline

Sound Samples
Hoddinott Four Welsh Dances Op.15 No 4 mp3 streaming
Hoddinott Jack Straw excerpt mp3 streaming
Mathias Celtic Dances Op60 No 1 excerpt mp3 streaming
Jones Dance Fantasy excerpt
mp3 streaming


This is a significant CD that seems to me to tidy up a lot of loose ends. I do not mean to imply that somehow these works are scraps or inconsequential. A brief look at the CD catalogue shows that there are a fair number of major works by Mathias, Hoddinott and Jones. These are by and large from the Lyrita and Nimbus stables and more often than not represent a serous diet of concertos, quartets, sonatas and symphonies. However there is a definite shortfall in the lighter and more approachable works from these three composers. Lyrita have presented here a series of Welsh or Celtic inspired dances alongside an Overture and Concerto Grosso by three of the most important composers from the Principality. Each and every one of these works is worthy of their composer and all deserve to be represented in the CD catalogues.

I first came across Alun Hoddinott through an old Golden Guinea LP (GSGC1410 7) that featured his Clarinet Sonata and String Quartet No.1. It was coupled with two major chamber pieces by Alan Rawsthorne. I guess that it was a strange introduction to Hoddinott's music but it did introduce me to a composer who seemed to cross the boundary between avant-garde and traditional musical expression. It was not until a couple of years later, when on holiday in Llandudno that I found the Pye BBC (RRC 22) record of music from Wales that included a number of the works that are performed on this present CD. These included the second suite of the Welsh Dances, the Concerto Grosso, the Investiture Dances and Mathias's Celtic Dances and his Sinfonietta. It was a fine introduction to a really attractive series of 'modern' yet approachable, works: they have been unavailable to listeners for far too long.

There has been criticism or at least comments from reviewers in the past that the Welsh Dances Op.15 owes much to Malcolm Arnold for their melodic and rhythmic style. This is not a problem. Like Arnold's famous two sets of English Dances, Hoddinott's owe nothing to specific Welsh folk or hymn tunes: they are a confection of images, impressions, nods and winks to what may be perceived as Welsh music. The Suite has four short movements that explore a number of typically happy moods. The opening dance, begins with a pastoral woodwind theme before the strings and orchestral elaborate. The presto is a jig that has strings working out against some fine brass writing. I love the moody 'nocturne', which is the slow movement of this suite; it is truly reflective and dreamlike. This music is like spending a summer's day sitting on the coast of Anglesey watching the seabirds and small sailing boats at Beaumaris. Yet, in a very small canvas, Hoddinott manages to build up to an impressive climax. The last Dance breaks the spell - it is pure Arnold with a Welsh accent. It is a whirlwind of xylophone and percussion that finally ends with a bang. Interestingly the Four Dances were premiered by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Vilem Tausky at the Royal Festival Hall in 1959 so it fifty years old this year.

I agree, to a certain extent, with the Editor that there are some problems with the Overture: Jack Straw (1964). He suggests that it 'hangs together only loosely' and is not completely convincing. Now, this overture has nothing to do with the Honourable Member for Blackburn but is in fact inspired by the fourteenth century English rebel who, together with Wat Tyler and John Ball, led the Peasants Revolt. The overture was originally composed in 1964 but was revised in 1980. Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with this piece, but a large amount of material seems have been used in what is only a five-minute work. It seems terribly wasteful and can lead to a feeling of unease. If only Hoddinott could have expanded it a wee bit: there are so many good ideas here that just cry out to be developed.

The Concerto Grosso No. 1 is a great piece. Written in 1966 for the 21st anniversary of the foundation of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, it is a perfect piece for testing players' musical skills. The work is effectively a 'concerto for orchestra' with each of the five movements showcasing the different departments of the band. It is not quite as straightforward as the Dances but there is certainly nothing complicated or difficult: it is a perfectly approachable piece from the first to the last note. It manages to maintain a fine balance between exhilaration and sheer beauty. It is good to have it back in the catalogue once again.

The Investiture Dances were composed in 1969 to commemorate the Investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales. Interestingly they were premiered in June 1969, a month before the ceremony at Caernarfon Castle. There are three dances, with a haunting 'andante' framed by two exuberant and outgoing movements. This is a fine work that once again reveals the composer as capable of writing a genuinely popular work, but without a hint of being patronising. It is a definite case of Hoddinott being a kind of unofficial 'Master of the Prince's Music' and doing a better job of it than some of the official incumbents of his Mother's and Grandfather's office!

The second set of Welsh Dances Op.64 was written some eleven years after the first set. They were another commission by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and were intended to be a further part of the celebrations for the Investiture. They are not based on folk tunes but rely on a distillation of Welsh music as seen through the lens of a skilful composer who was equally at writing both progressive and light music. The dances are quite short with only the 'lento' being of considerable weight and emotion. Hoddinott is a master of orchestration and contrives to create a diverse texture of sound on a relatively small canvas. The second movement 'presto' is a fine example of the composer's skill. Yet it is the profound slow movement that defines the entire work. The Investiture was a serious occasion as well as being a celebration. Hoddinott creates a misty impression with this music that is both evocative and reflective. The last dance restores the sense of fun, however, and the work ends in blaze of sound.

The music of William Mathias is nearly always approachable. He is perhaps best remembered for his fine organ music and his choral music where there is nearly always a feeling of genuine communication with his audience as well as being to the highest technical standard. Like Hoddinott, he never wrote down to his audience. Yet Mathias also wrote an impressive array of orchestral music, most of which is probably not well-known to the majority of listeners. This is a pity. The Editor hits the nail on the head when he describes him as 'a brilliant orchestral magician.' Even the most cursory hearing of these Celtic Dances reveals a work that sparkles, shimmers and quite simply entertains.

The composer wrote that he tried to 'reflect characteristics in the music of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall and Britain - whatever happened to the Isle of Man? He suggested that this music was meant to exhibit sympathy for the mythological-past expressed in a language of the twentieth century. There are four well-balanced movements that explore his theme with a healthy mix of joy, humour, wistfulness, warmth and vitality.

The work was composed for the 50th Anniversary of the Urdd Gobaith Cymru (Welsh League of Youth) an organisation happily still going strong with some fifty-thousand members.

Daniel Jones is a grossly underestimated composer. He is only represented by two CDs dedicated to his magnificent symphonies on Lyrita, and a couple of pieces here and there. The present Dance Fantasy is a welcome addition to the short list of works available. The piece was composed in August 1976 and was commissioned for that year's North Wales Music Festival and was first performed at St. Asaph by the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Norman del Mar. It is a powerful but ultimately jolly work that the composer has insisted could be danced to throughout. Geraint Lewis writing Jones' obituary in the Independent in 1993 suggests that 'The Welsh sense of rhetoric is never far away from Jones's music and his most frequently performed orchestral piece - the popular Dance Fantasy (1976) is imbued with a stirringly Celtic sense of heraldic display'. Just how much of Wales is here I am not sure -but certainly there are nods to the Appalachian Spring and perhaps even to Spain. Paul Conway writing in the liner notes that it is 'Daniel Jones' most popular and frequently performed work.' I guess that he is not really a 'household name' but let us hope that this present CD will encourage more listeners to explore his music.

Finally, the CD liner notes are good, the quality of the sound is excellent and the playing seems to me to be both accurate and enthusiastic. Altogether, this is a great CD that is packed with interesting, if not absolutely essential, works. That said, every enthusiast of British music will insist that this CD is in their collection.

John France  

see also review by Rob Barnett

 

 
 


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