Michael STIMPSON (b. 1948) Dylan, for baritone & harp (2006) [46.29] The Drowning of Capel Celyn, for harp solo (2013) [15.23]
Roderick Williams (baritone) Sioned Williams (harp)
rec. Llandudno Festival, 11 July 2006 and St Jude-on-the-Hill, London,
16 December 2014 STONE RECORDS 5060192780550 [61.52]
The centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas (1914-53) was marked by the appearance of two major works in his Welsh homeland: the opera Under Milk Wood by John Metcalf, and the orchestral work Four Portraits of Dylan by Mervyn Burtch – the former has appeared on CD last year (review)
- but the latter really needs a commercial recording. The song cycle Dylan, by English composer Michael Stimpson, was composed for the fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s death, and bears testimony to the attraction of his writings far beyond the borders of the Principality of Wales itself. His depiction of Wales, warts and all, comes not from some idealised pastoral setting but from the small towns which dot the landscape and where he settled for the last years of his life, immortalising the fishing village of Laugharne in the guise of Llaregyb (in Welsh spelling, Buggerall backwards) for his radio play Under Milk Wood. His writing is full of humour and wry observation as well as a deeply-rooted sense of nostalgia which totally transcends its origins. Many other composers have felt drawn to the lyrical mood of Dylan’s words; the fact that the poet can be referred to in this manner by his forename in isolation testifies to the affection he inspires.
Although Stimpson’s Dylan is described as a song cycle, it contains a fair admixture of spoken text and dialogue to produce a sort of biography of the poet’s life as well as settings of some of his poems. Non-English listeners should perhaps be warned that this spoken material constitutes probably about a quarter of the recording here, and that the booklet contains texts in English only. It comes as quite a shock that the performance begins with the famous opening lines from Under Milk Wood, familiar from recordings by major Welsh actors such as Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins and the author himself. Roderick Williams’s very different sort of voice has to work hard — although his delivery of the text is excellent — to erase memories of his predecessors. Sioned Williams joins him for one section of dialogue from the play, where her natural Welsh accents jar against the singer’s much more delicate hints at a Welsh style of delivery. It might have been better if this recording had tracked the spoken text separately from the songs where possible, but the combination of speech and song does constitute a whole which those involved were presumably reluctant to disassemble.
The songs themselves are fairly straightforward settings of Dylan’s poetry and prose texts, generally made with a carefully tuned ear for the rise and fall of the lyrical lines although there are occasionally moments that sound less than ideally idiomatic. Even so the songs are streets ahead of Stravinsky’s setting of Do not go gentle into that good night, one of the worst treatments of Dylan – or indeed any Anglophone poet – that I know in terms of wilful and perverse accentuation and emphasis. On the basis of that setting I think we should be grateful that the suggested collaboration between the two on an opera never materialised; the results might have been truly awful.
The full texts, both of spoken dialogue and songs, are given in the booklet; but so superb is Roderick Williams’s diction that they are hardly needed. They do serve to point up a couple of minor slips in the performance, but given its live provenance that is not surprising. What is surprising is the lack of audience response to the many humorous passages in the dialogue; there is a murmur of suppressed laughter at a couple of points, but otherwise the listeners seem to be treating every word as holy writ which must be heard in respectful silence. Dylan would have been horrified at such behaviour.
The other work on this disc comes from seven years later, but like the song cycle it was commissioned by Sioned Williams and this time it commemorates the drowning of the valley of Capel Celyn in North Wales to provide a reservoir for the city of Liverpool across the border in England despite unanimous opposition from Welsh MPs. This high-handed action provoked a positive furore of resentment throughout Wales, and indeed may be said to have kick-started the rise of the Welsh national party Plaid Cymru, who won their first seat in Parliament a year later. The ferocity of that protest can be gauged by the fact that a friend of mine in Cardiff was given the forename of Treweryn by his irate mother to commemorate the valley drowned in the newly dammed lake – a name that he will still proudly explain to anyone who asks. That degree of simmering anger is not really apparent in Michael Stimpson’s music, a series of five miniatures which emphasise the sense of loss and desolation rather than the political aspects of the situation. In the final movement he quotes from Joseph Parry’s partsong Myfanwy, with its final line Ffarwel; earlier, in the fifth song of the Dylan cycle, he gives us a set of variants of the hymn tune Cwm Rhondda - which he describes by its English title Bread of Heaven. Otherwise there are no specific Welsh allusions in either of these pieces, although he captures the general atmosphere well and indeed beautifully where appropriate.
The recording of The drowning of Capel Celyn is considerably more resonant than that of Dylan, clearly reflecting the different acoustics of the venues; but both are clear and pleasurable to listen to. The booklet of 24 pages gives us not only the texts, but also extensive and comprehensive notes by the composer on the music itself. This is a most attractive disc. Paul Corfield Godfrey