Friday 16 July 2021

Landscapes, Song Cycles and Folk Songs: the songs of Alun Hoddinott

Alun Hoddinott Landscapes, The Silver Hound, Towy Landscape, folk-songs; Claire Booth, Nicky Spence, Jeremy Huw Williams, Andrew Matthews-Owen, Michael Pollock; Naxos

Alun Hoddinott Landscapes, The Silver Hound, Towy Landscape, folk-songs; Claire Booth, Nicky Spence, Jeremy Huw Williams, Andrew Matthews-Owen, Michael Pollock; Naxos

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 July 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The complete songs for high voice and piano by the great 20th century Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott, an enterprising and stimulating survey

Alun Hoddinott was a major part of Welsh musical life during the second half of the 20th century, writing 10 symphonies, six operas plus chamber music, large-scale choral works, 20 major concertante works and more. Song-writing does not seem to have played quite such a major role in his compositional career, and a disc from Claire Booth (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone), Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano) and Michael Pollock (piano) on Naxos brings together all of Hoddinott's songs for high voice and piano as well as his last vocal work of all.

Hoddinott withdrew virtually all of his early songs, so the programme begins with Landscapes (Ynys Môn), Op. 87 from 1975 which was written shortly after Hoddinott's first opera, The Beach of Falesa (which was premiered at Welsh National Opera in 1974). The cycle was written for the tenor Stuart Burrows and sets poetry by Emyr Humphreys (born 1919) with whom Hoddinott had worked on a number of dramatic projects, writing incidental music for Humphreys plays.

The five poems are meditations on places in Angelsey (Ynys Môn), but perhaps significantly Hoddinott was also writing a major orchestral work, Landscapes Op. 86, for the BBC which depicted the craggy landscape of Snowdonia. There is nothing pastoral about the music of these songs, nor do we detect much of the Welsh folk tradition, this is big, serious music.

They are complex dramatic pieces, and musically feel like a continuous cycle rather than a sequence of songs. Hoddinott's style is a muscular yet lyrical arioso, with Nicky Spence's vocal line robustly following the poetry and Andrew Matthews-Owen's piano providing a rich commentary. It is a terrific piece, but a serious and complex one which is not completely approachable first time round but well worth the effort.

Hoddinott wrote further songs for Stuart Burrows, Six Welsh Folksongs came in 1982, and the songs are generally given (as here) in the English versions by Hoddinott's wife Rhiannon, though it would be intriguing to hear them in the original Welsh. Here are perhaps the most approachable songs on the disc, and there is a hint of Britten about the songs.

And Stuart Burrows was the soloist again when Two Songs from Glamorgan were premiered in 1990 to celebrate the 80th birthday of a long-serving and distinguishd Lord-Lieutenant of Glamorgan, Sir Cennydd Traherne. There is a sense of serious melancholy in both songs, and Hoddinott's imaginative piano writing both colours and supports the vocal line, yet these are clearly art songs. In both groups of folk-songs, Hoddinott's approach has less of the 'look at me' brilliance of Britten's folk-songs and seems rather closer to RVW's folk-song arrangements.

The Silver Hound saw Hoddinott working with another poet, an English one this time, Ursula Vaughan Williams (1911-2007), wife of RVW. The cycle was commissioned by another Welsh tenor, Kenneth Bowen who had already collaborated with Hoddinott on his cantata The Lady and the Unicorn. The cycle presents the life of man from prologue, through seven ages to epilogue. Between Landscapes and The Silver Hound, Hoddinott had written a further four operas, two one-act operas for television, an opera for children and a full-scale grand opera based on Thomas Hardy's The Trumpet Major. The results of Hoddinott's experience writing for voice and for drama can perhaps be felt in the sophistication of The Silver Hound.

The writing is sparer than in Landscapes, yet still with that sense of serious intent and a vocal line which is at times almost dramatic declaration with piano colouring and you can imagine the writing linking to Hoddinott's operatic work (I have to confess myself woefully ignorant of his operas). Each individual song is quite short, the results add up to something significant. Again, Nicky Spence impresses in the way the fluidity of his declamation matches the poetry, and his diction is such that we certainly don't need to check the printed texts. Andrew Matthews-Owen is a sympathetic partner here, conjuring a range of colours and hinting at perhaps the orchestral nature of some of Hoddinott's piano writing.

Though he wrote a number of works for soprano (including two for soprano and orchestra) there is only one set of songs, One Must Always Have Love written in 1994 setting a variety of poets. The cycle had been commissioned by the American poet Alice Witherspoon Bliss in memory of her mother, and the cycle includes on by Bliss alongside Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson and WB Yeats. Again this is intense music, concentrated, with a freedom and a clear sighted view of the poetry rather than casting a romantic glow.

Hoddinott's final vocal work, Towy Landscapes Op. 190 for soprano, baritone and piano duet was commissioned by pianist Andrew Mathews-Owen for the performers on this disc and they premiered it in 2006. Baritone Jeremy Huw Williams' association with Hoddinott dated back to the late 1990s when he appeared in Hoddinott's last opera, Tower and premiered Grongar Hill for baritone and piano quintet. This latter set part of the poem by John Dyer (1700-1758) which describes the landscape in rural Carmarthenshire, and it was to this poem that Hoddinott returned for Towy Landscapes. The music is spikier than earlier, a dramatic and complex response to the poetry rather than something pictorial. Described as a scena, it is cantata-like rather than a song-cycle, with the two voices weaving in and out with some terrific piano-duet textures creating real richness.

I have to confess that I missed this disc when it first came out in 2014, and having recently been exploring 20th-century Welsh song courtesy of Ty Cerdd [see my review of Taliesin's Songbook], this was a welcome chance to continue the exploration. These are not the sort of occasional songs which can easily be slipped into a recital, but the cycles on the disc are substantial, serious works which create a very real sense of the composer's sound-world. Always sympathetic to the poetry, these settings are finely evoked by the performers and the disc certainly repays attention.

Alun Hoddinott (1929-2008) - Landscapes (Ynys Môn), Op.87 (1975) [13:44] - NS, AMO
Alun Hoddinott - Two Songs from Glamorgan (1990) [4:25] - NS, AMO
Alun Hoddinott - The Silver Hound, Op.121 (1985) [11:11] - NS, AMO
Alun Hoddinott - One Must Always Have Love, Op.152, No. 3 (1994) [8:20] - CB, AMO,
Alun Hoddinott - Towy Landscape, Op.190 (2006) [10:36] - CB, JHW, AMO, MP
Alun Hoddinott - Six Welsh Folksongs (1982) [11:53] - NS, AMO
Claire Booth  (soprano)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone)
Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano)
Michael Pollock (piano)
Recorded at the Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Cobham, Surrey, 14, 16-20, 29 October 2009, 18 February 2010
NAXOS 8.571360 1CD [60.09]

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