Alun Hoddinott wrote two pieces of music with the title Landscapes
. There was an orchestral work dating from 1975, Op. 86 which was inspired by a poem by T.H. Parry Williams, ‘Eryri’ or ‘Snowdonia’. However, the piece recorded here is called Five Landscapes (Ynys Mon)
and was also written in 1975. This particular topographical study was based on an English poem by Emyr Humphreys who was a poet with whom the composer had already collaborated on a number of occasions, the first being a radio drama, Esther
The five poems are meditations on a number of locations on Ynys Mon or Anglesey. They ‘explore [the] topography, land and seascapes, the history and the pre-history, the natural world and the inevitable passage of time.’
The titles of the poems are given only in Welsh, however:-
1. Mynydd Bodafon, is a mountain in the east of Anglesey
2. Din Lligwy is an ancient hut village near Moelfre: it dates from the Iron Age
3. Llys Dulas, was a manor house near Dulas Bay in the east of Anglesey
4. Traeth Bychan is a hidden beach
5. Hen Gapel is a medieval chapel near the village of Moelfre.
The texts are presented as part of the CD liner-notes and will reward a careful reading before and after listening to the song-cycle.
The listener must not expect this work to reflect either an English or a Welsh style of ‘topographical pastoralism’. This is music that is fairly and squarely typical of Hoddinott’s vocal style which in many ways is akin to Britten’s declamatory manner. However, this is not a difficult work to approach: the piano part is largely straightforward with much use made of triads and octaves. The vocal line is expressive, varied and ultimately satisfying. The performance given here is both sympathetic and sensitive.
The premiere was given by the tenor Stuart Burrows and the pianist John Samuel at the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre in Cardiff on 27 May 1975.
The Silver Hound
is the portrayal of a journey through a man’s life. It was commissioned by the tenor Kenneth Bowen for a Royal Academy of Music performance. Hoddinott asked Ursula Vaughan Williams (1911-2007) to write the poem. There are eight sections to this work – representing the seven ages of man with a concluding epitaph. The tone of the cycle is set with the opening line: - ‘Memory is my silver hound stalking days that time has hidden.’ The progress of the poem is concerned with fleeting and fragmented images of his life a baby, a schoolboy, the soldier, the lover, the statesman and the old man. However the point of the work is that each ‘age’ is cumulative, not discrete, and leads toward the final reflection:-
What was your quarry,
Did seven selves make one man whole?
It is noticeable that Alun Hoddinott has approached this setting with the aim of clarity – there is a ‘greater simplicity and sparseness’ in the vocal line than one may have expected in his earlier works. Furthermore, as the Guardian reviewer wrote, the ‘sparing, open-textured accompaniment is beautifully balanced to the voice’. It is an attractive setting that may again remind the listener of Benjamin Britten, but is certainly worthy of Hoddinott and is in no sense derivative. It is sensitively sung by Nicky Spence. The Silver Hound
was first performed by Kenneth Bowen and Roger Steptoe at the Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music on 6 January 1986.
I am delighted that BMS have chosen to record the 1994 song-cycle One Must Always Have Love
, Op, 152 No. 3. For the curious Op.152 No. 1 was a setting of ‘The Silver Swimmer’ for soprano and ensemble to a text by Jon Manchip White and No.2 was a cycle of Five Poems of Gustavo Adolfo Becquer
for baritone and piano.
The American poet, Alice Bliss commissioned this work in memory of her mother Evelyn Lee Wotherspoon. Two years previously, she had commissioned the The Three Motets, Op.143 No.4, also in memory of her mother.
Hoddinott chose four poems:- ‘Sonnet’ by Christina Rossetti, ‘Daisy’ by Emily Dickinson, ‘Tasmanian Poem’ by Alice Bliss and finally, ‘The Ragged Wood’ by W.B. Yeats.
It is a work that exhibits a stunning sense of freedom and elation which is well presented by Claire Booth. It is undoubtedly one of the most attractive and beautiful of Hoddinott’s works and is ultimately absorbing and moving.
The Towy Landscape
must rank as one of Alun Hoddinott’s most important works: certainly it is both impressive and dramatic and often moving. It was to be the composer’s last vocal work. In 1998 Hoddinott had set some ‘Grongar Hill’ by the Welsh poet John Dyer (1700-1758). This
work had been commissioned by the Beaumaris Festival in association with the Welsh Arts Council. In 2006 the composer turned to Dyer again for a setting for soprano, baritone and four-hands at the piano. At first, I was a little confused by this poem. I looked up the work in my e-book of Dyer’s Poems. Although I found Grongar Hill
the words were completely different to those given in the liner-notes. However, a little more research revealed that there were in fact two versions of this poem produced by the poet ...
Grongar Hill, in the Towy Valley was an important location for the composer: it had been a stamping ground in his childhood and was a place for which had a great deal of affection. In 1982 the painter John Piper had provided illustrations for a limited edition of Dyer’s poems and had written that he once believed the Towy Valley was ‘the promised land.’ Hoddinott and John Piper were great friends and often discussed painting, poetry and landscape. Piper has described the poem ‘Grongar Hill’ as ‘one of the best topographical poems in existence because it is so visual. I return to it whenever I feel depressed about the countryside getting spoilt.’
A web page devoted to the Towy Valley describes the landscape as consisting of: - wild mountains where the magnificent red kites soar, a beautiful lake, historic towns and villages, magnificent gardens, Roman sites, gold mines, romantic castles, a valley rich in myth, legend, history and literary associations leading to some of the world's finest beaches all in 67 miles of enchanting valley, mountain and coastal scenery.’
It is surely from this imagery that Hoddinott weaves his spell on the listener. The work is in the form of a ‘scena’ which can be regarded as a dramatic piece which is subdivided into recitative and aria-like sections. The form often refers to a stage production but in this case it is a concert piece. The baritone and soprano sing together in the first, third and final sections whilst the baritone sings the second and fifth and the soprano the fourth. The four-handed piano part ensures that there is an almost orchestral texture to the accompaniment. The vocal lines are often dramatic in tone, but there is a certain ethereal beauty and certainly some introverted and reflective moments. It is not an easy piece to understand on a first hearing, but, after a while the composer’s ideas becomes clearer and reveal themselves in a well-balanced and structured piece of music that truly reflects the chosen text.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Six Welsh Folksongs which Hoddinott wrote in 1982. They were translated and adapted by the composer’s wife Rhiannon. These songs can be sung in Welsh, however in the present arrangement they will surely reach a wider audience.
1. Two Hearts Remain
2. O Gentle Dove
3. If she were mine
4. Ap Sièncyn (the name of the protagonist)
5. The Golden Wheat
5. Fairest Gwen
These songs are both simple and
complex: like all folksong settings there is a depth to the words and a subtly to the melody that largely defy analysis. It is not fair to compare these to the many folk-song settings of Benjamin Britten; however this gives a general impression of the excellent realisation that Alun Hoddinott has made of these national treasures. He has allowed the music and the words to speak for themselves, without imposing his musical language on them. They are truly beautiful –especially ‘The Golden Wheat’ which is near-perfect in its effect.
They were dedicated to Stuart Burrows who gave their first performance on 2 December 1982. On that occasion he was accompanied by Caryl Thomas on the harp.
Two other folksongs in this recital include ‘In Pontypridd my love doth dwell’, and ‘Farewell to Llangyfelach’ (titles vary in translation) with their Housman-like melancholy. The Welsh texts were translated by Geraint Lewis. They were composed to celebrate the 80th
birthday of Sir Cennydd Traherne, who was a long serving Lord Lieutenant of Her Majesty in the County of Glamorgan.
This CD is a major addition to the (slowly) growing corpus of Alun Hoddinott’s music available on CD and MP3. It certainly seems to me totally baffling why so little of Wales’ most important 20th
century composer (Mathias, Williams, Jones notwithstanding) should have relatively little available - for example there are ten symphonies – only 2, 3, 5 and 6 have been recorded or are currently available.
I was impressed by the sympathetic, enthusiastic and convincing performances of all these pieces. But the greatest revelation to me was the sheer beauty of the Six Welsh Folksongs. Alongside the Welsh Dances
and Investiture Dances
these are a fine introduction to this great Welsh composer. The other works on this CD, although a little more challenging, are all critical to the composer’s career and are works which demand our attention.
see also review
by Gary Higginson