Thursday 17 June 2021

Taliesin's Songbook: 20th and 21st century Welsh art song explored by a fine group of Welsh singers

Taliesin's Songbook - 20th and 21st century Welsh song; Susan Bullock, Rebecca Evans, Catrin Finch, Gareth Brynmor John, Natalya Romaniw, Elgan Llyr Thomas, Elin Manahan Thomas, Andrew Matthews-Owen; Tŷ Cerdd

Taliesin's Songbook
- 20th and 21st century Welsh song; Susan Bullock, Rebecca Evans, Catrin Finch, Gareth Brynmor John, Natalya Romaniw, Elgan Llyr Thomas, Elin Manahan Thomas, Andrew Matthews-Owen; Tŷ Cerdd

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 June 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A strong line-up of performers in a programme which explores the development of Welsh art song in the 20th and 21st centuries

Taliesin was a semi-legendary Welsh Bard and this new disc from  Tŷ Cerdd - Music Centre Wales, Taliesin's Songbook, uses his name as the focus for a programme of songs by 20th-century and contemporary Welsh composers, setting mainly Welsh texts. Taliesin's Songbook features music by Dilys Elwyn Edwards, Alun Hoddinott, Arwell Hughes, Dafydd Bullock, Evan Thomas Davies, Mark Bowden, Rhian Samuel, Gareth Glyn, Grace Williams, Huw Watkins, William Mathias, Morfydd Owen and Meirion Williams performed by Susan Bullock (soprano), Rebecca Evans (soprano), Catrin Finch (harp), Gareth Brynmor John (baritone), Natalya Romaniw (soprano), Elgan Llyr Thomas (tenor), Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano) and pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen who also curated the project.

When we think of Welsh song there is a lazy tendency to imagine a Welsh male-voice choir singing Myfanwy or a folk-song such as Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock), but from the early years of the 20th century the genre has moved steadily from folk-song and the parlour towards art song. Whilst the composers Alun Hoddinott and William Mathias are very much the focus of 20th-century Welsh art song, the composers on this disc stretch from Et Davies (born 1878), Morfydd Owen (born 1891) and Meirion Williams (born 1901) to Huw Watkins (born 1976) and Mark Bowden (born 1979). This is very much a disc of Welsh composers setting the Welsh language, only five of the twenty two songs set English texts.

We begin with songs by Dilys Elwyn Edwards (1918-2012), whose teachers included Herbert Howells, sung by Rebecca Evans. The three songs which make up Caneuon Natur (Songs of Nature) set words by Welsh writer Gwyn Thomas (1913-1981) and the cycle was dedicated to the tenor Kenneth Bowen. The first is almost a dramatic recitative, whilst the vividly vibrant second song is followed by an almost quiet prayer. Evans follows this with another Edwards the W.B. Yeats setting Cloths of Heaven, this is thoughtful with a certain atmospher and Evans' diction here is superb.

Evans continues with Alun Hoddinott (1929-2008) in lighter vein, two of his charming Four Welsh Songs which were composed on a family holiday and use words traditionally sung by children, the delightful 'Pedoli, Pedoli (A-shoeing, a-shoeing)' and the more quietly concentrated 'Cysga di, fy Mhlentyn Tlws (Sleep, oh sleep, my little babe)'. And the Hoddinott group is completed with his medieval carol song by Gareth Brynmor John, a striking piece where the freely rhapsodic vocal line is complemented by a seemingly independent piano part.

Arwel Hughes (1909-88) is known to many as a conductor but here we hear him as composer (he studied with RVW) with two extracts from his opera Menna (premiered by Welsh National Opera in 1954) sung by Susan Bullock. Both are dramatic, Hughes romantic yet definitely 20th century harmony contributing to a sense of a well-made work and making you want to hear more of the opera.

Bullock's group is completed by 'Crib Goch (Shout)' from Caneuon y Mynyddoedd (Songs of the Mountains) by Dafydd Bullock (born 1953), a dramatic song with a substantial piano part, and Ynys y Plant (The Children's Isle) by Evan Thomas Davies (1878-1969), which was the Prize Song of the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales in 1909 and is a large-scale piece combining real melody with rich harmonies.

The Soul Candle by Mark Bowden (born 1979) sets poetry by Gwyneth Lewis, the first National Poet of Wales, here sung by Gareth Brynmor John. The three songs which make up the cycle move almost towards free recitative, but Bowden combines this with some striking and very effective piano writing to make a strong grouping.

Soprano Elin Manahan Thomas starts her group with Yr Alarch (The Swan) by Rhian Samuel (born 1944), an unaccompanied song which sets a favourite 14th-century poem in a very contemporary style using non-vocal techniques and multi-tracking, all in a vivid performance from Manahan Thomas.

Manahan Thomas continues with Hymn to the Virgin by Gareth Glyn (born 1951) accompanied by the harp of Catrin Finch. This is a strong piece, dramatic and rhapsodic and perhaps not quite as traditional as one might expect from the grouping of voice and harp.

The Loom by Grace Williams (1906-1977) sets a folksong in English, sung by Manahan Thomas with Andrew Mathews-Owen at piano. Williams takes quite a romantic approach to the song, but the result is highly effective as an art-song in its own right.

Elgan Llyr Thomas sings 'Eyes look into the well' one of Three Auden Songs by Huw Watkins (born 1976), a lyrical yet intense piece which made me regret that space could not have been found for the other two.  Thomas then continues with the only William Mathias (1934-1992) on the disc, his Pan Oeddwn Fachgen (A dream of youth), an interesting and highly effective song

The talented Morfydd Owen (1891-1918) is represented by Slumber song of the Madonna and Gweddi y Pechadur (The Sinners Prayer) sung by Natalya Romaniw. These two contrasting songs, the first flowing and romantic, the second more dark and intense, make you regret again her early death. And finally Romaniw gives us another early 20th century song, Gwynfyd (Paradise) by Meirion Williams (1901-1976), a poised and focused work with definite twists to the romantic 20th-century harmony.

Welsh speakers will probably find the texts and some of the songs on this disc familiar, but for those not brought up with the language both words and music are often new. The disc comes with the original song texts, but you need to go to the website to get English translations.

Several of the composers I have come across before but this recital represents an imaginative exploration of the 20th-century development of Welsh art song. The performances are strong indeed, and the disc brings together a fine array of Welsh artists. Many of the songs make you want to hear more, which is exactly the response that this type of disc should elicit. It is heartening to see such a wide arrange of Welsh artists exploring the 20th and 21st century development of Welsh song and let us hope for more discs in this vein.

Dilys Elwyn Edwards (1918-2012) - Caneuon Natur
Dilys Elwyn Edwards - Cloths of Heaven
Alun Hoddinott (1929-2008) - from Four Welsh Songs
Alun Hoddinott - Medieval Carol
Arwell Hughes (1909-1988) - from Menna
Dafydd Bullock (born 1953) - from Caneuon y Mynyddoedd
Et Davies (1878-1969) - Ynys y Plant
Mark Bowden (born 1979) - Soul Candle
Rhian Samuel (born 1944) - Yr Alarch
Gareth Glyn (born 1951) - Hymn to the Virgin
Grace Williams (1906-1977) - The Loom
Huw Watkins (born 1976) - from Three Auden Songs
William Mathias (1934-1992) - Pan Oeddwn Fachgen
Morfydd Owen (1891-1918) - Slumber song of the Madonna
Morfydd Owen - Gweddi y Pechadur
Meirion Williams (1901-1976) - Gwynfyd
Susan Bullock (soprano)
Rebecca Evans (soprano)
Catrin Finch (harp)
Gareth Brynmor John (baritone)
Natalya ROmaniw (soprano)
Elgan Llyr Thomas (tenor)
Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano)
Andrew Mathews-Owen (piano)

Tŷ Cerdd TCR031 1CD [71:37]

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