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Hilary TANN (b.1947)
Here, The Cliffs - Orchestral Music of Hilary Tann
With the Heather and Small Birds (1994) [9:53]
In the First, Spinning Place (2000) [12:22]
From the Feather to the Mountain (2004) [15:32]
Here, The Cliffs (1997) [15:32]
From Afar (1996) [18:32]
Debra Richtmeyer (alto saxophone), František Novotnę (violin)
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Kirk Trevor
rec. Bratislava, Slovak Republic, 31 August 2009 (In the First, Spinning Place), and 21-23 November 2005 (remaining works)

Hilary Tann was born in Llwynypia, Glamorgan, and was a composition student of Alun Hoddinott - something she and I share. In 1992 she was appointed chair of the Department of Performing Arts at Union College, Schenectady, New York and is now John Howard Payne Professor of Music in the College's Music Department. She is a leading light in the world of women composers and has a strong interest in Japanese music and culture. All that said, she has never lost her involvement with her native land or her identity as a Welsh composer.

As you can see, the music on this disc stretches back over the past twenty years; all these pieces are for orchestra, with two, ‘In the First, Spinning Place’ and ‘Here, The Cliffs’ featuring solo instruments, the first alto saxophone, the second violin. Her idiom is far from extreme modernism; stylistically, she is quite close to composers such as Rawsthorne or Tippett, although she has a strong musical personality of her own. Part of the attraction of her music is that her orchestration is so sure-footed and blessedly without that reliance on huge percussion sections that so many recent composers hide behind.

Track 1 contains ‘With the Heather and Small Birds’, a ten-minute orchestral piece inspired by the 19th century Welsh language poet, John Ceiriog Hughes. Without resorting to crude pictorialism, Tann creates a sound-picture of the glorious central Welsh landscape, somehow gritty and softly pastoral at one and the same time. The work has great energy, with an impression of relentless climbing in the first section. The most memorable moments of the piece are those where the music expresses a sense of open space, magical in its tranquillity. The booklet notes tell us that she alludes to ‘several’ Welsh folk-songs and hymns; I certainly spotted ‘Hyfrydol’ (usually sung to ‘Love divine all loves excelling’) and ‘Dafydd y garreg wen’ (‘David of the White Rock).

In some ways, it’s a pity that the CD starts with this piece, purely because the orchestral playing near the beginning – the strings especially – is pretty rough, and together with the slightly boxy recorded sound, created a very negative impression. In the later tracks, the orchestral playing is excellent. Kirk Trevor shows a truly sympathetic understanding of Tann’s style.

There are still not that many solo works for the saxophone family, and I do hope the piece on track 2, ‘In the First, Spinning Place’ gains some currency, because it most certainly deserves it. The title is taken from a Dylan Thomas poem about his youth. The outer sections of the work have a restlessness and thrusting energy not unlike the previous track. The whole thing is driven by the outstanding playing of the soloist Debra Richtmeyer, whose tone and sheer technical brilliance make this a joyful and bracing experience.

‘From the Feather to the Mountain’ sounds, from its title, like a sort of companion piece to ‘With the Heather and Small Birds’. Indeed, the textures and general sense of exploration and discovery do unite the two. This later work (2004) is a more complex and rather darker affair. It hinges on the contrast between some of the vivid tonal images: light, flowing figuration in woodwind and strings; angry outbursts, often very dissonant, in brass and percussion; and long, spacious melodies of an aspirational nature, chiefly in the upper strings. This is a powerfully emotional and rather exciting work, constructed with great clarity of thought.

The disc’s ‘title work’, ‘Here The Cliffs’ follows on track 4, and is the other solo work recorded here. The solo part is played with exceptional sensitivity by the Slovak violinist František Novotnę. This is in truth a short violin concerto; it runs continuously, but is in easily discerned sections. An atmospheric opening (cf. Debussy ‘Gigues’) is followed by a ‘Vivace’ that eventually leads to the central ‘Adagio’, a passage of great beauty and tenderness. The ‘Vivace’ music returns, leading to a delicious coda, with mysterious fanfares and liquid percussion, thus rounding off what is an unusually satisfying musical experience.

‘From Afar’ on track 5 is the longest composition on this CD. It draws on Tann’s interest in Japanese music - particularly that of the flute-like Shakuhachi - and thus presents a rather forbidding sound-world, very different from the other works on the disc. What it does share with them, however, is that characteristic of Tann’s: great energy to which we can add a sense of an unfolding narrative, together with bold ideas and clarity of structure.

Hilary Tann is a brilliantly gifted creative artist; she has a distinctive voice of her own coupled with easily perceived links with the musical past. I found this CD intensely rewarding, particularly after a few hearings, and now am impatient to hear more by this composer.

Gwyn Parry-Jones