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Morfydd Llwyn OWEN (1891-1918)
Portrait of a Lost Icon
Spring [1:04]
Mother’s Lullaby [3:25]
The Lamb [3:08]
Rhapsody in C sharp minor [5:19]
Tristesse [3:34]
Maida Vale [3:49]
Tal y Llyn [1:57]
Little Eric [1:00]
Glantaf [2:26]
To Our Lady of Sorrows [3:02]
Prelude in E minor [3:41]
Four Flower Songs [7:45]
Gweddi y Pechadur [6:03]
Sonata for Piano in E minor [22:36]
Chorale (from Piano Quintet) [0:55]
The Land of Hush-a-bye [2:49]
Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Brian Ellsbury (piano)
rec. 2016, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
TŶ CERDD TCR014 [74:59]

Prior to July 20, 2018, much to my chagrin, I had never heard the name Morfydd Owen, or any of her music. Quite by chance, I happened on a TV recording of a BBC Proms where her highly-evocative and original Nocturne for Orchestra featured in a concert given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Entitled ‘Youthful Beginnings’, the programme featured Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, Schumann’s Fourth Symphony in its original version – and music by Lili Boulanger and Morfydd Owen – both of whom died tragically young. In Owen’s case, she died shortly after her last piece was given at the Proms, back in September 1917.

Totally smitten with her Nocturne, I endeavoured to seek out a CD-recording of the work, only to find that her discography is distinctly lacking. There is currently no recording of said Nocturne, but it can still be heard on YouTube, played, in fact by the same Welsh orchestra, but only as an audio file without video.

It is probably in her songs, though, that her writing-style and musical persona are most clearly in evidence, and so the CD ‘Portrait of a Lost Icon’, which appeared last year, is, perhaps, the ideal introduction to the composer’s work, given that it includes ten world-premiere recordings, six piano pieces and four songs. Having reviewed a live performance of Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas quite a few years back, where she sang with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, I did initially wonder – apart from the shared Welsh heritage, whether the soprano whom I had heard negotiating the trickiest of coloratura, and ornamentation in works by Handel, would suit the simple, unfettered style of Owen’s songs as heard here.

The opening song Spring, clearly suits the light and delicate approach of Manahan Thomas’s delivery, and clarity of diction, and provides an immediately appealing and effective start to the selection. At the outset, I did question whether the piano’s chuntering accompaniment would dominate the stage somewhat, but once the ear adjusted, the balance was good overall. The second song, Mother’s Lullaby, presents a far more expressive example, interestingly to Owen’s own text, and which the singer presents with charm and poignancy. Even if occasionally the voice seems quivering, I feel that the rationale of this CD is not to provide a concert-hall performance of these songs, but one of greater intimacy, perhaps more informally at home, sitting around the piano – indeed, a much-enjoyed form of entertainment at the time. Blake’s The Lamb is harmonically more forward-looking, with longer and more sinuous melodic lines, which again the singer negotiates with subdued, yet heartfelt passion, in another charming miniature.

Pianist Brian Ellsbury now has a chance to come into his own with Owen’s Rhapsody in C sharp minor, with its dramatic opening leading to a haunting middle section which, as Ellsbury, in his excellent sleeve notes in English and Welsh suggests, wouldn’t sound out of place as a piece of film music even today. A chordal passage ensues, with hints of modality, before the harmony and chord-palette strangely seem to leap forward some decades, before the modal passage reappears once more. Whole-tone octave scales sit side-by-side in the lead-up up to another evocative section, which then turns to the major key for its brief, almost Rachmaninov-like conclusion.

Tristesse sets the poetry of Alfred de Musset in the vernacular, opening with an evocative minor-key melody, tinged with some modality which perfectly captures the essence of the text, no less effectively than any similar example by Fauré, Duparc, or any of the other great French chanson writers. Here, Ellsbury accompanies with great empathy, while Manahan Thomas negotiates the often-telling tessitura and tricky harmonic niceties to good effect, too.

Ellsbury gave the next piano piece its title of Maida Vale, since it was originally untitled, but appeared at a time when Owen was lodging in that part of London. It owes some of its writing to French Impressionism, and more especially the characteristic kind of waltz Satie might write, though I think the jury could still be out on whether Maida Vale really cuts it as the surrogate title of this little ternary-form (ABA) vignette. Tal y Llyn is something of a strange one – essentially a piece in binary (AB) design, where the opening section has an expansive melody, almost nocturne-like with its right-hand writing in thirds, but which suddenly trots off into a brisk little march, which then, by a series of descending juxtapositions of these two ideas comes to a sweet little end - are we perchance talking of the little steam engine of the Talyllyn Railway, I wonder? Little Eric is a touching little miniature, too, of just a minute’s duration, although there doesn’t appear to be anything in the notes about the eponymous little chap.

Glantaf was written after Owen had visited the Cardiff cemetery where an acquaintance was buried, and this little piano solo both depicts the calmness of the surrounding, while hinting at Owen’s sadness on being there. Again, modality plays a significant part in the harmonic scheme of things.

The minor key prevails once more in To Our Lady of Sorrows, the opening of which bears an uncanny similarity to the opening few bars of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, and it begins as if it will be another piano solo, but, in fact this is just a slightly lengthened introduction before the voice enters. It is most effectively written in the style of a prayer or declamation, and where the frequent suspensions in the piano part heighten the tension. The Prelude in E minor for piano solo is an interesting stylistic amalgam, barely staying long enough in any one style before moving on listlessly, but it is nonetheless another effectively-written piece for the instrument.

The Four Flower Songs (Speedwell, Daisy’s Song, To Violets, and And God Made a Lovely Garden) form a contrasting set where again the two performers focus more on the spirit and sentiment of each, rather than making exactitude in performance the only priority. That said, there are still some nicely-managed moments along the way from the voice in particular.

But what these four songs do demonstrate, even more than their harmonic ingenuity, is Owen’s talent for, and emerging skill in, word-setting and word-painting, whether in English, French, or, as in the following song, Gweddi y Pechadur (The Sinner’s Prayer), Welsh. With its chromatically-descending harmonies at the start, it provides another example of Owen’s slightly-extended introductions. Manahan Thomas is perfectly at home here, and sings with great emotion in her native tongue, in arguably the CD’s jewel in the crown – altogether a quite sublime rendition.

The following track, Branwen, was Owen’s original sketch for the orchestral piece The Passing of Branwen, here in a piano arrangement.  The Sonata in E minor (1910) that follows is very much a student work from a young composer. But despite the way it flits from one style to another, as if here was the young composer experimenting both harmonically, and in terms of piano-writing, there are gripping moments and tastes of what might have been, had her life not been so tragically terminated at such a young age. The opening Adagio is very much exploratory, with free-running scale passages not unlike that of a Bach Fantasia, with the opening idea returning to round off the movement. Owen, in fact, reworked the themes of the Adagio in the earlier-heard Prelude in E minor. The ensuing Allegro vivace opens almost like a Haydn or Clementi first-movement, before a more chordal section takes over in the first part of the second-subject group. There is barely any real development before the recapitulation, which appears to end firstly on an imperfect cadence (half close), before moving on again with the second subject reappearing, now in the tonic major key. Another, short rising chromatic passage leads to a final return of the opening and the imminent close. The Minuet and Trio, again is plaintive to start with, and not really startlingly original in its ideas, suggestion an easy Schubertian flow at times, especially in Owen’s harmonic palette. However, the Trio does start rather bizarrely, in the tonic major (E major) juxtaposed by a bold scale in G sharp minor, but thenceforth things start to move more conventionally until the earlier shades of Schubert return, and the music veers once more back into the tonic major. The Finale sees Owen experimenting more with piano technique, and contrapuntal textures, again in an eclectic movement full of different styles, which paradoxically hangs together by this very variety. Yes, while there could be the occasional complaint of there being more meandering, than thematic development thematically, something which normally emerges later in all but the very great composers, Owen’s ideas here are attractive, if not always fully-joined-up. A final section is then brought in, ideally to tie up any loose ends, both here in the Finale, and in the Sonata overall.  

The Chorale from Owen’s Piano Quintet is a mere trifle, lasting just some 55 seconds or so, which then leaves Manahan Thomas to join Ellsbury for the final track on the CD – The Land of Hush-a-bye. – written in a decidedly more commercial, popular style, and which was, in fact, published by Chappell in 1916. A simple strophic song in three verses, as Ellsbury points out, it does bear a strong resemblance to The Land That Might Have Been, which Ivor Novello wrote some seven years later. But before we should be thinking plagiarism, apparently a close friend of Owen took singing lessons from Novello’s mother, Clara Davies, and perhaps that same friend took Owen’s song to a lesson and Clara, possibly impressed by the song, showed it to her son, who subconsciously referred to it when he wrote his own, those years later.

Either way, it was an excellent choice with which to finish the CD, and sign off in parlour-song, rather than fully-blown concert-hall, style. Hopefully there will now be a resurgence of interest in the life and music of Morfydd Llwyn Owen, and more of her output in other genres will start appearing on disc, if only to make some reparation for her untimely demise, and the loss of a composer to a country like Wales, so richly steeped in music. Meanwhile, this well-recorded, informative, and most entertaining CD of some of Owen’s songs and piano music is very much a step in the right direction.

Philip R Buttall

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