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Michael STIMPSON (b. 1948)
Dylan, for baritone and harp (2003) [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 London-born and Wiltshire-resident composer Michael Stimpson has an unusual and in many ways inspiring biography. He initially studied Zoology and Botany whilst developing a high level of skill as a guitarist. In his mid-twenties he suffered a catastrophic illness which left him registered blind and unable to play the guitar to his erstwhile standard. Eventually, between 1993 and 1997, he undertook postgraduate studies in composition at the University of Southampton; so, presumably, only in his late forties did he come to embrace composition as his primary occupation.

Alongside facts such as these, Stimpson's website tells us that his stimulus to compose comes 'often from contemporary events, favourite authors, and poets'. This, rather than any very obvious personal affinity with Wales, presumably explains the subject matter of the works on this disc. Dylan, composed as long ago as 2003 and premiered in that year in Swansea by Jeremy Huw Williams and Sioned Williams, is described as a 'biographical song cycle' on the life and works of a 'favourite poet' of many, Dylan Thomas (1914-53). The flooding ('Drowning') of the North Wales village Capel Celyn in 1965, in order to provide a reservoir for Liverpool, hardly qualifies as a 'contemporary event', but clearly still has a profound personal resonance for the distinguished harpist Sioned Williams, whose grandfather led the local campaign against the reservoir, and who commissioned Stimpson to write the work in celebration of her own sixtieth birthday. She proceeded to give its premiere, in London in 2014. Two works, then, composed a decade apart, and indeed recorded some eight years apart. Quite why the recording of Roderick Williams's performance of Dylan at the 2006 Llandudno Festival has remained unissued until now is not immediately apparent.

The song cycle is by some way the longer work. Is it, though, really a 'song cycle'? One must clarify at the outset that Dylan also includes a good deal of spoken prose. It consists of eight sections, each representing (or at least echoing) a distinct phase in Dylan Thomas's life and career, and each featuring words exclusively by him: 'Beginnings' (his childhood); 'Genesis' (his schooldays and early writings); 'New Horizons' (his move from Swansea to London); 'Caitlin' (his wedding and married life); 'Bottled God' (his losing battle with alcoholism); 'War' (his attitudes to the Second World War and move to Sussex to escape the Blitz); 'Laugharne' (Under Milk Wood's 'Llareggub', whither the family moved in 1952); and 'The Thin Night Darkens' (his tragic decline and early death). Most of these sections consist of a passage of spoken prose followed by a sung poem; the exception is the pivotal fifth section, 'Bottled God', which actually includes no song at all, but rather two passages of prose thematising Thomas's alcoholism, the second of which is accompanied by a decidedly inebriated harp.

Most of these juxtapositions work well. For example the darkness of the second song, with its references to such things as 'shrapnel rammed in the marching heart, hole in the stitched wound and clotted wind' is all the more shocking when it has been preceded by Thomas's whimsical account of his schooldays, during which 'he helped to damage the headmaster's rhubarb, was thirty-third in trigonometry, and, as might be expected, edited the School Magazine'. The fourth section is all the more effective for coupling Thomas's uncomplicated, happy account of his wedding with the poetic delineation of the married man's infinitely more complex response to Caitlin's 'contraries'.

Musically, Stimpson's idiom is essentially conservative. There is nothing here to deter those who normally consider themselves averse to contemporary music. Rather, his settings come across as a logical extension of the twentieth-century English art song tradition; and one is from time to time reminded, if only by the sound of the harp, of a much earlier tradition, namely the Elizabethan lute song. Stimpson's basically tonal response to Thomas's words has the advantage, however, that the discords he occasionally introduces have a particularly powerful effect. This is the case, for example, in the harp's drunken accompaniment to the passages on the poet's alcoholism, or in its heart-rending commentary on the dying poet's question, 'why are you putting the sheet over my face?' I would say that, overall, Stimpson is stronger on atmosphere than on individually memorable ideas; but, then again, I thought the same of John Metcalf's 2014 operatic adaptation of Under Milk Wood (review). Dylan Thomas was, after all, a writer of such seemingly effortless virtuosity and profundity that it is surely very difficult for any composer to impose his or her personal stamp on his words without in some way diminishing their power.

Roderick Williams's performance of all this is, quite simply, superb. His voice is throughout warm, beautiful, evenly produced over a wide range; and he evinces a laudable attention to, indeed relish of, the nuances of Thomas's texts. I applaud his spoken contributions almost as much as his singing. His speaking voice is most attractive, and he demonstrates a high degree of both dramatic power and comic timing. The fact that he is plainly not Welsh is hardly a problem, given that Dylan Thomas's own inimitable accent was essentially 'R.P.' or, as he himself put it, 'cut glass' and 'rather fancy'. The Llandudno audience is for the most part admirably silent, and the occasional shows of amusement - such as, for example, the male cackle in response to the phrase 'a piece of cold lamb with vomit sauce' - are both understandable and endearing.

Even after the emotional roller-coaster that is Dylan, Sioned Williams's performance of The Drowning of Capel Celyn emerges as more than just a filler. I suppose a solo harp has its limitations when depicting a protracted public scandal such as that which attended the high-handed decision to 'drown' a long established and viable Welsh village. Yet Stimpson plays to the instrument's strengths very shrewdly. After all, the harp is very good at establishing moods, such as 'the feeling of the first shafts of light over a waking village' (first movement), or the energy and fixity of purpose of those who opposed the flooding (second movement); and it is also good at water, as we see here in the third movement's gradual transition from the trickle of a stream to the flooding of a substantial area (third and fourth movements). Last but not least, the harp transpires to be an eminently suitable medium to convey the combination of anguish and nostalgia which the 1965 decision must have left in its wake (fifth movement). Altogether this is a very effective piece, to which Sioned Williams does full justice.

In sum, this is a most desirable and - if one dare say such a thing of a composer in his sixties - promising issue. The booklet tells us that Stimpson's 'incidental music to the opera Jesse Owens and (the four-stage work inspired by Darwin) Age of Wonders' has been 'recorded by the Philharmonia Orchestra for future release'. I hope I get to hear it.
 
Nigel Harris
 
Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey





 




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