John THOMAS (1826-1913)
Hunting the hare (1886) [3.22]
Gogerddan* (1870) [2.36]
Gigue (Handel) [4.17]
La primola* (1858) [4.03]
Cambria (1863) [11.02]
The King’s departure* (1870) [3.18]
Love’s fascination (1862) [5.13]
Hob a derry dando* (1870) [1.31]
Souvenir du Nord (1854) [9.33]
The quarrelsome couple* (1870) [2.49]
Ständchen (Schubert) [3.57]
Gelert’s grave* (1863) [4.03]
Thou art the star* (1858) [3.34]
L’adieu (attrib Schubert) (1900) [5.39]
Rachel Ann Morgan (mezzo* and harp); Edward Witsenburg (harp)
rec. Kerk Markenbrinnen, October 2011
GLOBE GLO 5251 [64.57]
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 span.
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
The first opportunity on disc to encounter some of Thomas’s song settings.