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Alun HODDINOTT (1929 – 2008)
Passaggio Op.94 (1977) [14:41]
The Heaventree of Stars Op.102 (1980) [11:22]
Doubles Op.106 (1982) [17:05]
Star Children Op.135 (1989) [18:26]
Hu Kun (violin – Op.102); David Cowley (oboe – Op.106); Rosalie Armstrong (harpsichord – Op.106);
BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra/Tadaaki Otaka
rec. Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Wales, 23-24 March 1992
NIMBUS NI5357 [61:34]

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Hoddinott CD reviews on MusicWeb International
Lyrita SRCD330
Lyrita SRCD331
Lyrita SRCD332
Sadly, since this disc’s original release in 1993, the composer Alun Hoddinott died in 2008. The catalogue is not exactly bulging with discs of his work – two fine Lyrita CDs and one from Chandos being notable exceptions – so this Nimbus collection, recorded in excellent natural sound and featuring committed performances, is to be doubly welcomed. Hoddinott’s compositional career lasted sixty years from a 1948 Cello Concerto through to the Symphonic Poem Taliesin composed in the year of his death. In total there are nearly two hundred opus numbers covering pretty much every combination of instruments and voices. This volume of work is all the more remarkable when you consider how active he was as Professor of music at University College Cardiff and as a musical administrator in general. I have little direct knowledge outside of that which is available on disc but there is a consistent voice at work that becomes more individual and familiar the longer you immerse yourself in its sound-world. Certainly he is a composer whose work deserves the most serious attention. Hoddinott’s idiom has been described as modernist-romantic and I think that is very apt. You can imagine that this was not a musical vocabulary that endeared him greatly to the avant-garde establishment in Britain in the 1960s and I feel to this day his music has not received the acclaim it deserves.
This is not music that pays instant and easy dividends. Hoddinott prefers complex structures and textures which by their nature do not give up their secrets on superficial acquaintance. Take Passaggio which opens this CD. In effect this is a twenty-section jigsaw puzzle-cum-concerto for orchestra. The detail of how the sections relate is elaborated in Geraint Hughes’ lucid and interesting liner-note. Of the works here recorded it is the one I am still wrestling with the most. For all the brilliance of the orchestral writing even after several hearings I find the structure hard to perceive by ear no matter how clear the explanation on paper. That being said I cannot imagine the current performance being bettered. How quickly and easily we forget that by 1993 the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra - as they still were then - had become, under Mariss Jansons first and then Tadaaki Otaka, a very fine orchestra indeed. The second work: The Heaventree of Stars is an eleven minute poem for violin and orchestra. The title is taken from Joyce’s Ulysses and is the stimulus for one of Hoddinott’s most evocative and atmospheric works. To quote Jones’ liner-note; “[it] is a rapturous and radiant nocturne whose darkly glowing backdrop is at once luminous and serene”. Soloist Hu Kun plays it to the hilt with sweet tone and total technical control. I did wonder if a lighter more lyrical approach might have suited the cool of the evening more. There is an element of Korngoldian lushness to Kun’s playing that whilst admirable in its own right seems at odds with the music’s character; the tone and vibrato both unrelentingly intense. Hoddinott chooses a simpler rhapsodic style for this work. As is evident in all the works recorded here he is a master of orchestration. After an initial surge from the full orchestra the work shimmers and shudders with misty wraiths of instrumental colour. Through this the soloist’s music is the most substantial and least transient component. There is an underlying sense of foreboding in this nightscape, of something haunted. Nimbus’s preferred natural balance pays dividends here. For sure all the multi-layered textures register well and clearly but at the same time they are able to integrate into an orchestral whole providing an endlessly changing environment for the violin. Apart from some brief and transitory climaxes the spirit of the work is diaphanous and fleeting and strangely poignant.
The double concerto for oboe and harpsichord – Doubles - occupies a very different realm. Shorn of the orchestral exotica of the percussion section or anything but strings this seems to be far more neo-classical in its approach. As soloists the oboe is most definitely the first amongst equals. For sure the harpsichord has an important independent role but the ear is repeatedly led to the oboe’s contribution first and foremost. Again the natural perspective of the Nimbus recording aids this perception. What a relief for once not to have a concertante harpsichord work where the solo instrument is sitting in your lap. Both soloists play with a bright-eyed sprightly vigour. David Cowley’s tone is slightly acidic but this suits the spirit of the work and Rosalie Armstrong’s harpsichord is nimble and alert. This is well placed in the overall programme of the CD splitting the two most significant scores.
The disc closes with the longest and most impressive work here – Star Children Op.135. This was a 1989 Promenade Concerts commission for the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra and was also taken by the same performers as here on a tour to Japan in 1991. By the time of this recording these players had lived with the score for some four years - and it shows. Music of this complexity is not rehearsed and recorded in a couple of pick-up sessions. Hoddinott had a long association with this orchestra but I am sure even he was delighted with the quality of this performance. It is a very immediately powerful and impressive work. The genesis - pardon the pun given the creation myth origins of the piece - is explained in detail in the liner-note. In essence it is a modern symphonic poem representing the belief of an island people in the Indonesian Ocean that their origins lie in the sky; hence they are children of the stars. Part of their funeral rites involves returning the dead spirit to the stars. Hoddinott makes no literal attempt to represent programmatically any of this but instead allows his considerable imagination to run free with images of night, space, death and dance. The atmosphere of the slow opening is at once awestruck - foreboding and mysterious. An atmosphere of impending drama overarches proceedings, as though all the sections of the orchestra are nervously girding themselves for what is to come. A brass summons leads into two granitic chords before a shuddering disjointed dance starts. The playing here is ideal - theatrically nervy yet precise articulate and powerful. Solo woodwind lines skitter through the texture like solo dancers crossing a performance space. Even though the music now moves at some speed the atmosphere is still essentially spectral. Hoddinott always had a penchant for large percussion sections and he uses one here to brilliant effect. He sustains this long passage of great orchestral kinetic energy extraordinarily well. Even at first listening you are drawn forward by the exciting momentum of the work. Few composers are able to sustain this kind of writing over such an extended period so convincingly. There are a couple of scurrying string passages which test the unison technique of the orchestra but the cumulative build to the two powerful brass chords – they sound like two great shamanist gestures – is primally compelling. From there on the piece recedes into the night sky before one last surging crescendo on a unison chord. It really is a work that instantly draws the listener into its world – one of Hoddinott’s most exciting and enjoyable scores.
All credit to those involved in this disc. Nimbus have produced several excellent volumes of music by Welsh composers in the past – I’m thinking of the William Mathias’s Symphonies in particular here but this disc and the final work especially is a crowning glory. One little curio – presumably for the depiction of the night sky they have chosen John Piper’s set design for Walton’s wartime ballet The Quest as the cover art – I remember that same image from the old Lyrita LP of the ballet suite. An English composer stealing the thunder of Wales’ finest – surely some mistake! As a programme of four important works from Hoddinott’s maturity this disc very neatly complements the Lyrita/Symphonies discs and another on Chandos (CHAN 8762) featuring the powerful Lanterne des Morts mentioned earlier. There is no overlap of repertoire so I would strongly recommend all enthusiasts for 20th Century British music to investigate further – a rewarding disc of powerful music brilliantly performed.
Nick Barnard


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