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The Children of Hrin: Epic Scenes from the Silmarillion after the Mythology of J R R Tolkein - Part Three (1982)
Morgoth the Enemy - Laurence Cole (bass)
Hrin, Lord of the House of Hador; Gwindor, a Lord of Nargothrond - Julian Boyce (baritone)
Trin, his son - Simon Crosby Buttle (tenor)
Morwen, Wife of Hrin - Helen Greenaway (mezzo)
Ninor, Daughter of Hrin - Angharad Morgan (soprano)
Saeros, Councillor of Doriath; Dorlas, a woodsman - Michael Clifton-Thompson (tenor)
Mablung, Captain of Doriath - Stephen Wells (bass)
Beleg Cuthalion, Captain of Doriath; Brandir, Lord of the Men of Brethil - Philip Lloyd-Evans (baritone)
Finduilas, Princess of Nargothrond - Emma Mary Llewellyn (soprano)
Glaurung the dragon - George Newton-Fitzgerald (bass)
Louise Ratcliffe (mezzo)
Jasey Hall (bass)
Volante Opera Chorus
Volante ‘Symphonic Orchestra’
Virtual orchestra created using EastWest Software/Quantum Leap
Detailed synopsis included. No texts – available online, with detailed musical analysis.
Released 2020.
PRIMA FACIE PFCD126/7 [78:11 + 56:21] 

First an acknowledgment: Paul Corfield Godfrey (hereafter PCG) is a fellow MusicWeb reviewer, though we have never met. His latest review, of Wagner’s Die Walkre, is here.  A further acknowledgment: I am something of a Tolkien ‘nut’, having had the privilege of being lectured by the Great Man when he was brought out of retirement during my second year at Oxford, and by his son Christopher on Old English language and poetry in my first year. This new recording is dedicated, among others, to Christopher, who did so much to edit his father's works.

Some time ago I reviewed two earlier Tolkien-inspired pieces: Akallabth and other works – review – and  The Fall of Gondolin: Recommended – Spring 2019/1. Two other colleagues also reviewed Akallabth review review. My review of The Fall of Gondolin was meant to represent my interim thoughts but, in the event, I never got down to writing about it in more detail – nor did I ever finish Christopher Tolkien’s edition of the book of that name: it’s still on my ‘to do’ pile, along with all the other things I never completed, such as learning Sanskrit or completing an MPhil. The Recommended status stands for my appreciation of the music and the performance, as it does also for this instalment.  Those wishing to avoid a rambling journey through Old English and Old Norse poetry should take that Recommended award at face value and jump to the end of the review.

This is one of two recordings which I have recently been invited to review on the basis of an earlier interest in a particular repertoire. A few days before receiving The Children of Hrin, I was sent a very different album, Tudor composer Nicholas Ludford’s Missa Sabato, performed by La Quintina on Paraty (220191). I’m very pleased that I said ‘yes’ in both cases; my very positive review of the Ludford, another Recommended recording, should be online about the time that you read this.

Like The Fall of Gondolin, the new recording uses real singers, drawn from Welsh National Opera, and a virtual orchestra. As before, the virtual orchestra is completely convincing. If we can have recordings of virtual Hauptwerk organs, as on all but the latest of Divine Art’s series of recordings of the music of Carson Cooman, why not of a full orchestra? I’m not sure how it works in either case, but I don’t need to know. (Presumably the organist sits at a ‘real’ set of keyboards and pedals and selects the registration digitally.)

If anyone was born to set the works of Tolkien to music, it would have been Wagner, for whom the world of Germanic mythology was as inspiring as it was to Tolkien father and son. So deeply was Norse mythology engrained in Tolkien that he took the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit directly from the Vlusp.  The difference being that, whereas he could read the Norse sagas and the Poetic Edda in the original, Wagner had to rely on a translation of the Vlsungasaga, which he skilfully interwove with the Middle High German Nibelungenlied.

Unfortunately, Wagner is not around any longer, so the task falls to PCG, whose translation of The Children of Hrin into a two-hour music drama is also a work of considerable skill. As well as being based on the material which Christopher Tolkien used for the book of the same name, the work ends with the return of Hrin from his pinnacle of suffering, an episode taken from The Wanderings of Hrin. It’s taken half a millennium to appreciate the music of Ludford on that other recording; I hope and trust that PCG doesn’t have to wait that long. One day, maybe, his work will be produced on stage with a real orchestra, which is certainly not meant to play down the value of this recording; until then, these CDs will serve very well.

Inevitably, there are shades of the Ring cycle in the mix, as in the power of Glaurung the dragon to exercise a paralysing terror similar to that of Fafnir until he encounters the man who knows no fear, Siegfried.  The notes refer to Tolkien’s interest in the Finnish Kalevala for the unwitting incest between brother and sister, and the music briefly quotes Sibelius’ Kullervo, but Wagner also provides an analogue in the liaison of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walkre.

Without suggesting overt influence from Sibelius, other than the acknowledged quotation, or Wagner, The Children of Hrin at its best deserves comparison with both composers in terms of the power of the music. In fact, in an interview on his website, PCG plays down any parallels with Wagner, as Tolkien himself did in saying that the only comparison between the two Rings was that both were round. I could add that both were objects of beauty which, through human greed and lust for power, brought untold misery.  Such considerations aside, PCG manages to achieve a genuinely epic style without detaining us for anything like the span of a Wagner opera.

Nor does he believe that the more ethereal moments in his music – of which there are plenty – owe anything to the influence of Hildegard of Bingen, whose music has become so familiar following The Gothic Voices’ rediscovery of it on Hyperion.  Again, though there may be no influence, it’s not amiss to compare the two in terms of emotional content; as in The Fall of Gondolin, the music here is often hauntingly beautiful. And PCG does admit to the influence of Vaughan Williams, which I hear in all his music, though sifted through his own style.  I also hear the influence of Holst.

It may be less popular than it was to look for archetypes but, as an inveterate Jungian, I can’t help seeing them in much of this work. We begin with the evil Morgoth who wields power unjustly. There are many parallels: both Wotan/Odin and Zeus/Jupiter, though powerful beings, are both capricious and subject to Fate.  If one phrase sums up the Germanic view of things, it occurs in the poem The Wanderer: Wyrd bi ful ard - fate is wholly inexorable.  If it is your fate to be cursed by an evil power, as Hrin is by Morgoth at the outset, there’s little that you can do abut it.  And if a dragon makes you forget who you are and you commit incest with your brother, as Ninor does, that’s wyrd at work, too.

Having been felled by Morgoth’s curse, Hrin ends the Prologue transfixed on a high place, like Prometheus bound to his rock or the valkyrie Sigrdrifa/Brunhilde surrounded by fire on her peak. I’ve already mentioned the brother/sister incest theme and the best myths often involve dragons; Glaurung was the father of the fire-drakes of Angband. It’s remarkable that a creature that doesn’t exist should feature in unconnected cultures. Germanic mythology was, of course replete with dragons; even heroes like Beowulf were not immune to them, but the simple hobbit Bilbo was able to find the flaw in the armour of Smaug.  Even after the restoration which follows the Downfall of the gods, the dragon Nidhogg flies over the plain, carrying corpses: ar kemr inn dimmi dreki fljgandi, / nar frnn nean fr Niafjllum; / berr sr fjrum — flgr vll yfir — /Nihggr ni. [Vlusp 66]  Like Beowulf, deserted before the dragon's lair by all but one of his retainers, so Dorlas deserts Trin before he and Glaurung destroy each other.

The dragon Glaurung is despatched by being stabbed from below. PCG's version, where the dragon is depicted symbolically by a mask, is less specific about this than the book but, like Smaug his vulnerable spot is underneath, and Trin despatches him like Sigur in Fafnisml, in the Edda. Unlike Sigur, however, the hero doesn’t lurk ignominiously in a ditch until the dragon passes over him, but does the deed valorously, like Wagner’s Siegfried.

Tolkien’s work in general and The Children of Hrin in particular is permeated with the sense of loss which underlies Old English and Norse poetry. Elsewhere he illustrates ‘the sadness of Mortal Man’:

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? ...
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning? [The Two Towers, Chapter 6]

The lines, an adaptation of part of the Old English poem The Wanderer [Hwr cwom mearg hwr cwom mago?] apply well to the events of The Children of Hrin, where even well-meaning action occasions death and loss. Equally apt are later lines from the same poem:

Eall is earfolic eoran rice;
onwende wyrda gesceaft weoruld under heofonum.
Her bi feoh lne. Her bi freond lne.
Her bi mon lne. Her bi mg lne.
Eal is eoran gesteal idel weore
. [All is suffering in the earthly realm; / the action of fate governs the world under the heavens. / Here fortune is fleeting. Here friends are fleeting. / Here man is fleeting. Here maiden is fleeting / All this earthly abode becomes worthless.]

Where this mood permeates the action, PCG’s music reflects it perfectly. But even the deepest Germanic gloom leads to new hope. After the downfall of the gods (Ragna rk, Gtterdmmerung), in the Edda, the prophetess foresees ‘coming up a second time / Earth from the ocean, eternally green.’ [Sr hon upp koma ru sinni / jr r œgi ijagrœna; Vlusp, 59]. So, at the end of The Children of Hrin, PCG interpolates a moving reunion scene in which Hrin returns from his captivity in Angband to the tomb of Trin, where Morwen is dying. So CD2 opens, with the Prelude to Scene 7, music worthy of mention in the same sentence as that of Sibelius, and closes with music of loss shot through with hope and tenderness. The detailed notes aptly refer to gentle benediction and an unravelling of the web of myth through which the tragic history has been viewed. Hrin’s final words are significant ‘She was not conquered’. It’s a very different ending from that of Gtterdmmerung, but it’s worthy of mention in the same sentence – and there’s not much that is, in my book. You can access the music of this final scene online.

Christopher Tolkien was an excellent lecturer. His Friday lectures on poetry, always delivered wearing a bow tie, were so interesting that some friends and I spent more than usual on lunch that day, discussing the topic of the lecture. One Friday, going home for the weekend, I was so inspired by his account of Njal’s Saga that I risked missing the train to drop off via Blackwells to buy the Penguin translation. I caught the train by a whisker, but, head full of Norse literature, forgot that I was still wearing my gown until people started giving me odd looks as I changed trains in Birmingham.

His editions of his father’s work, unfortunately, don’t for me quite match the charisma of those lectures. They read a little too much like scholarly editions of medieval texts, often with a confusing wealth of variants, as if he were comparing the slightly varied accounts of Sigur’s/Siegfried’s slaying of the dragon and his encounter with Sigrdrifa/Brunhilde in different versions. It’s very much to the credit of PCG’s versions that they hang together musically and make narrative sense. The notes point out that the music was composed well before Christopher Tolkien’s final edition of the story in 2007, and is independent of it.

The advantage of a virtual orchestra is that it plays exactly what it’s programmed to play, with no fluffs. The singers, however, provide an element of potential human fallibility – potential but not actual in the case of this recording. Indeed, almost all of the singers are carried over from the fine team who recorded The Fall of Gondolin. All give good account of themselves, despite the music being seriously demanding at times.

The recording is good, sound effects included, and the notes helpful, though I strongly recommend also following the link to the website, where you will find more detail, a libretto and musical examples.

I once had a colleague who thought that her students deserved better grades for trying hard.  I'm sure that composing so much music on Tolkienian and other themes is thoroughly deserving, but my award of Recommended status, as for The Fall of Gondolin, is certainly not for that reason alone, or because this is music by a colleague. I apologise for taking a ramble though Old English and Norse poetry, but I do urge readers to make the project worthwhile by buying the CD or the download. The discs are available at mid-price, around 14; the download is less expensive, around 10 in lossless format and comes with the pdf booklet. There is even a 24-bit download.  If anything, I was even more impressed byt this than by Godfrey’s other Tolkien-based works.

Brian Wilson

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