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Alun HODDINOTT (1929-2008)
Landscapes: Ynys Môn, for high voice (tenor) and piano, op.87 (1975) [13:44]
Two Songs from Glamorgan, for tenor and piano (1990) [4:30]
The Silver Hound, for tenor and piano, op.121 (1985) [11:10]
*'One Must Always Have Love', for soprano and piano, op.152 no.3 (1994) [8:20]
*#+Towy Landscape op.190, for soprano, baritone and piano duet (2006) [10:35]
Six Welsh Folksongs, for high voice (tenor) and piano (trad. arr. Hoddinott) (1982) [11:48]
Nicky Spence (tenor); *Claire Booth (soprano); #Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone); Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano); +Michael Pollock (piano secondo)
rec. Yehudi Menuhin School, 14, 29 October 2009, 18 February 2010. DDD

Experience Classicsonline

This alluring CD brings together in first recordings a diverse collection of Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott's songs for voice and piano. Not all of Hoddinott's music makes for the easiest of listening, and that is broadly true of the songs. For those new to his music, the best point of entry into this CD is at the end, with his genial arrangement of Six Welsh Folksongs. These are rather like Britten's folksongs: nostalgic, tuneful, straightforward. Not really pure Hoddinott, of course, but an unassuming appetiser. The Two Songs from Glamorgan are similarly approachable, albeit more darkly ambiguous in tone. Britten's, in fact, is a name that comes to mind in several places throughout this programme, particularly in a number of 'declamatory' passages. Without any implication of derivativeness, those who enjoy Britten's songs should very much appreciate Hoddinott, although the listener should be prepared for a certain degree of mild atonality in places.
Both sets of folksong arrangements are sung by the very impressive Nicky Spence, who does in fact have the lion's share of this disc. Already it may be worth noting that, though Spence has an expressive, theatrically appealing voice - indeed, he manages to make Landscapes sound like Shakespeare at The Globe - it is hard to imagine anyone sounding less Welsh, with his immaculate Received Pronunciation vowels. Indeed, he comes from Scotland! Baritone Jeremy Huw Williams is certainly Welsh, but his contribution here is limited. Claire Booth, as fine as her own performances are, is English. Given the quintessential Welshness of the subject matter of most of these songs, it would have made a fitting coup de maître for them to have been heard with a native Welsh lilt. This would have been an ideal opportunity, indeed, to publish a few art songs in Welsh, a language certainly more closely linked historically to Anglesey (Ynys Môn) and the rural Carmarthenshire of Grongar Hill than English. Hoddinott's works often have a bilingual aspect, and although he was not a Welsh speaker, his wife was - the Six Folksongs are her translations - and he was naturally sympathetic to Welsh bilingualism.
The texts for the five Landscapes are by Welsh writer Emyr Humphreys, who published them in 1976 as a set of ten poems, which he subtitled "A Sequence of Songs" - and they do indeed seem especially well-suited to Hoddinott's vivid but sympathetic treatment. Humphreys still lives on Anglesey, now well into his nineties. He was once described by R. S. Thomas as "the supreme interpreter of Welsh life in English". The ruminative, weather-beaten, modernist-with-a-smile style and tone of Landscapes reappear in The Silver Hound, settings of Ursula Vaughan-Williams's specially-written texts that consider, at journey's end, "seven ages" of man - baby, Schoolboy, Soldier, Lover, Statesman, Old Man, corpse.
Claire Booth's soprano brings some vocal contrast to the well-balanced programme in 'One Must Always Have Love', Hoddinott's filigree, almost ecstatic setting of four love poems by Christina Rossetti, Dickinson, Yeats and Alice Bliss, who commissioned the work. Booth handles the high tessitura with great aplomb. She is back in Towy Landscapes, in which Hoddinott immortalises John Dyer's Grongar Hill, a poem that in its turn immortalises the scenic landscapes of the Towy Valley in Carmarthenshire - though both the hill and the poem are in themselves substantially unremarkable. This work, though widely held to be Hoddinott's finest song cycle, is the most modernistic of the programme, and perhaps best considered last, after Hoddinott's progressive musical ideas here have been contextualised by the other works.
On the other hand, it must be said that the combination of soprano and baritone is not entirely satisfactory - the question "why baritone?" looms repeatedly, at least during Jeremy Huw Williams's relatively unconvincing account. Towy Landscapes was commissioned by pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen, asking for the work to be written for himself and his three co-performers here. For Hoddinott the last lines, "Calmly regardless hastening to the sea, As I thro' life shall reach Eternity", proved poignantly prophetic - this was his penultimate vocal work and death was sadly not far off.
Both Booth and especially Spence display great sensitivity and communicativeness in their interpretations, as does their stalwart pianist Matthews-Owen. He does not always have a huge amount to do - for one thing, Hoddinott was not a pianist (his thirteen Piano Sonatas, however, though short, suggest otherwise), and for clarity's sake, his keeps his writing generally straightforward. Nevertheless, Matthews-Owen is always technically au fait and reliably expressive, and his responsiveness towards Spence in particular is exemplary.
The booklet contains full song texts and an interesting, detailed essay by Geraint Lewis, albeit printed in unnecessarily dense type and heading off tangentially to discuss Hoddinott's still-neglected operas. The atmospheric picture on the front cover, like it or not, is John Piper's 'Grongar Hill'. Sound and general technical quality are high. Matthews-Owen's pedal action is sometimes quite obvious, but otherwise there are no noises off, except in 'O Gentle Dove' where Spence can clearly be heard flicking the pages of his score over.
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