Hilary TANN (b.1947)
Seven Poems of Stillness (2013)
Guy Johnston (cello), with R.S. Thomas reading his own poetry (recorded by Sain Records)
rec. 15 April 2014, Millennium Centre, Cardiff
TŶ CERDD no number [29.05]

Although Hilary Tann has been resident in the United States for a good few years now, she still maintains close contact with her Welsh origins. This association has been epitomised by her relationship with the poetry of R.S. Thomas (1913-2000) which has inspired a number of her compositions over the years. Here we are given seven poems by Thomas interspersed by a series of meditations for solo cello which comment upon them and sometimes underpin the readings by the poet himself. These meditations are beautiful pieces, superbly played here by Guy Johnston. Their links to the selected poetry are not always immediately apparent — in the sense that they do not directly illustrate the words but reflect rather individual aspects of the relevant poem, which are elaborated in the subtitles given to the individual movements. The construction of the work, with the movements linked, is both effective and original.

In the fourth movement the composer acknowledges in her notes a series of fragmentary quotations from the Welsh hymn tune Llef, one of the most superb examples of its genre although not as well known as other tunes such as Hyfrydol and Cwm Rhondda at any rate outside the Principality. Llef is written in an unusual metre, with the sense both of the words and music seeming to fall into alternating bars of four and three beats. The best known - and very beautiful - arrangement of the tune by Mansel Thomas elongates the three-beat bars into a regular four which has the unfortunate side-effect of cutting across the sense of the lines. Tann quotes only fragments of the tune, but recognises the need to curtail the shorter bars in a manner which displays the long-breathed melody to its best advantage. The result is very expressive indeed as a counterpoint to Thomas’s poem The moorland.

The only criticism which could be levelled at the performance here lies in the use of recordings of the poetry made by Thomas himself. Like many poets, he has a curiously uninflected style of delivery which fails to make the dramatic points to the extent that one might wish. Although the rather frail sound of his voice has its distinct attractions, I can imagine that the effect might have been greater if an actor had been employed. Nonetheless the blend of voice and cello is well managed, with no sense of discontinuity between the two recordings in a resonant acoustic. The delivery of the texts in this manner serves to throw the contributions of the latter into higher emotional relief – a distinction which the music is well able to bear. Johnston’s playing, as I have already indicated, is simply marvellous.

The recording is also decidedly short measure, and one might have wished that Tŷ Cerdd could have filled out the disc with a recording of Tann’s The Grey Tide and the Green for orchestra, also based on the poetry of Thomas, which was given in Cardiff by Owain Arwel Hughes at the Welsh Proms in 2001. A recording of an extract from this score can be heard on the composer’s own website, but it serves only to whet the appetite for more. Nevertheless this disc will be a very pleasant discovery, and not only for those many listeners who love the poetry.
Paul Corfield Godfrey