The music of John Thomas, “harpist-in-ordinary”
to Queen Victoria, is not a totally unknown quantity. There
has been a 2007 compilation of his music for harp and harp duo
from Naxos, and Elinor Bennett recorded his complete twenty-four
Welsh melodies in 1999 - unfortunately this latter double
CD set seems to be no longer available. The present disc however
gives us the first opportunity on disc to encounter some of
his song settings. Commendably the booklet with this issue contains
not only the complete Welsh texts of these songs but also rhymed
translations of the poems by Thomas Oliphant, which may not
be the last word in accuracy but give the listener who does
not speak the “language of the angels” a chance
to come to grips with some totally unfamiliar music.
This is not music of great sophistication, however. The pieces
for harp and harp duo are more or less elaborate arrangements
and sets of variations on various mainly Welsh themes. The songs
are basically strophic settings. Unlike earlier recordings of
Thomas, we are also given here the chance to hear Thomas’s
arrangements of pieces by Handel and Schubert, which are well
written for the harp but add nothing to our knowledge of the
composer or the arranger. Thomas was admired by such contemporaries
as Rossini, Liszt and Berlioz, but his straightforward transcriptions
have nothing of their style or flair.
The most substantial piece here consists of the three-movement
suite Cambria. Here the style adopted by the Morgan-Witsenburg
duo is at once very different from that preferred by the Lipman
Harp Duo on Naxos. Morgan and Witsenbug arpeggiate the opening
chords, luxuriating in the rich sounds; the Lipmans attack these
same chords without any arpeggiation at all and the result simply
sounds unidiomatic. They also launch into the opening movement
The camp with a will, shaving over a minute off the total
duration of the suite by comparison. Morgan and Witsenbug not
only allow themselves more time but also phrase the tunes themselves
with more affection. However this is the only piece here which
duplicates any of the material on the Naxos disc, so collectors
will want to have both. The recording on this new release is
more atmospheric than in the Naxos release, with greater resonance
adding more body to the sound.
The other major work, not available elsewhere, is the Souvenir
du Nord where Thomas suddenly abandons Welsh tradition and
constructs a fantasia on Russian melodies. However none of the
melodies sounds particularly Slavonic in the treatment they
are given here. Indeed they could well be unknown Welsh folksongs.
The most beautiful of the harp pieces in this compilation is
the haunting Love’s fascination, where Thomas extends
his meditation on the tune Serch hudol over a five-minute
The songs, mainly Welsh, also include one setting of an English
poem, Thou art the star by Charles Long, a piece of cloying
Victorian sentimentality, and an Italian piece, La primola.
Here one must admit to some dissatisfaction with the singer.
Rachel Ann Morgan is a harpist who also sings, in the standard
Welsh tradition but her basically folk-orientated style of delivery,
which is fine with the Welsh settings, sounds decidedly uncomfortable
in what are effectively Italian or English art songs. Of the
Welsh traditional songs, The quarrelsome couple (Dadl
dau) is perhaps the most familiar to non-Welsh listeners.
Hoddinott employs it both in his settings of Welsh folksongs
and in his Welsh folksong suite. Before him Mathias had
also used it in the final movement of his Harp Concerto.
Both Hoddinott and Mathias treated the tune in a more upbeat
manner, and Morgan sounds rather lacking in character in what
is essentially a comic song. Oliphant’s rhyming translation
is particularly free and particularly inaccurate here. Gelert’s
grave, an aria from Thomas’s dramatic cantata Llewellyn,
was originally written to be accompanied by an ensemble of six
harps. It is a melodramatic and rather gory ballad, but Thomas’s
basic strophic setting badly lacks dramatic definition. Morgan’s
voice is unable to supply what is missing - Erlkönig
this emphatically is not. Queen Victoria would not have been
shocked, and probably not amused either.
It is odd to find a recording of such specifically Welsh music
coming from the Netherlands. However Dutch harpist Edward Witsenburg
has exactly the right feeling for the music that one would more
naturally expect from Rachel Ann Morgan. They combine well in
duet. The booklet notes come in both English and German, and
one is particularly delighted at this clear attempt to introduce
this music to an international market.
Paul Corfield Godfrey