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Beren and Lúthien: Epic Scenes from the Silmarillion - Part Two
Volante Opera Production
Soloists and Chorus from the Welsh National Opera
Orchestra created using Easwest Software/Quantum Leap “Symphony Orchestra”
rec: 2019
PRIMA FACIE PFCD110/1 [2 CDs: 140:38]

I once had the opportunity to discuss with Paul Corfield Godfrey his obsession with the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien. I admitted that the Silmarillion was one of my least favourite of the author’s books, but I remember being impressed by Paul’s passion for it and his ongoing project to set scenes from it to music. Here we have an example of that commitment which is, for me, more interesting and entertaining than the book, making those scenes leap off the page, so to speak, although they are still not enough to make me want to re-read it. These scenes are not being released in the order in which they appear in the book; Parts Three (review) and Four (short review) appeared first, with no sign of Part One as yet.

Before considering the music itself, we should look at the performance, which is billed as a “Demo Recording” - that is to say that it employs small forces in order to have the music heard without the prohibitive costs of hiring a full chorus and orchestra. Instead, we get a pared down chorus of eight rather than the many voices the piece calls for; these are recorded separately and blended by the engineers, which, while not ideal, serves the purpose of the production well. However, I must say that there were times that I longed for greater vocal depth from the chorus. The orchestra is an effective, if at times a little odd-sounding, digitalised effect; the sounds are produced by feeding Corf’s score into a computer which features a sampled orchestra - that is recordings of real strings, woodwinds, brass and the rest- then the sounds are fitted digitally to the score. The result is quite pleasing, but on occasion the notes sound a little clipped and short, even organ like and a little more slide in the strings would be nice. However, it is a huge improvement on the whole idea of a synthesised electronic sound, the overall effect really bringing this music to life and giving the word a new impetus.

The music itself begins with epic portent, creating a sense of foreboding as it describes the Battle of Sudden Flame and its consequences. This sets up the story on the lines of the great Norse and Icelandic sagas, which would have impressed Tolkien as a scholar of the sagas; indeed, Gandalf’s horse from The Lord of the Rings is called Shadowfax, which Tolkien lifted directly from the Edda, to continue the idea of a great oral tradition. The music is woven through the words well and it does feel as if you are listening to the retelling of a great story which is portrayed very dramatically without being operatic. As such, the music serves the text rather than the text serving the music, which gives the work the feeling of a modern take on an English music drama from the Victorian era, with more than a hint of Wagner thrown in for good measure. The result is quite engaging and an interesting presentation of the text, which I would, I think, benefit from being played by larger forces. This is a production which leads me into searching out other epics from the collection.

The solo singers are quite good; I would like a little more security in their projection and a little less vibrato, especially in the male voices, but that is not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the work. The chorus is good, but the overall effect is a bit limiting; there are passages which deserve a good deal of heft behind them, and although the singing is perfectly adequate, I longed at times for a little doubling up. The orchestral music performed via a digital processor leaves something to be desired, but it is a lot better than some recordings I have heard using electronics to produce orchestral sound. The notes sound short and precise and there is a lack of sliding or portamento which give the score a dryness, but again does not detract too much from the listener’s enjoyment.

What I will say is that when you get to the more expansive instrumental sections, especially on the second disc, the software seems to work better, with the orchestral sounding more organic. There is enough interest here, both in the music and the performance, to make you long for a fully backed studio recording. However, the project was to set out to produce a demo recording of a work that would otherwise probably not have made it on to disc and as such it has achieved its aim admirably, for which Prima Facie and Volante Opera Productions should be richly applauded. This is a rewarding recording of a rich and complex work which will bring enjoyment to many - and not just to Tolkien fans.

Stuart Sillitoe

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