Among Welsh composers of the younger generation, Guto Pryderi Puw (b. 1971) looks likely to achieve real prominence. This disc of his orchestral music confirms an assured mastery of the medium – not least in ‘… unless I open the door… ‘ (2007), a tone-poem inspired by a tale from the Mabinogion whose twin aspects of celebration and trepidation are vividly reflected in its ever more fraught trajectory. Running the gamut from dense harmonic clusters to folk tunes, the judicious placing of its events more than outweighs its overtly short-term evolution – all making for a bracing embodiment of its narrative and a vivid showpiece in its own right.
The Oboe Concerto (2006) feels more abstract in its representing the human voice from three distinct speech contexts. Thus the insinuating lyricism of the opening ‘Rumour’, followed by the unyielding activity of ‘Chatter’; then the central Lento brings a measure of inward repose to which the cadenza forms an equable transition into the final ‘Stutter’, with its lightly ironic mood and demonstrative close – David Cowley unfazed by the demands of a notable addition to its genre. Reservoirs (2002) contrasts the visual appeal of such landscapes with the demise of communities they often engendered but the alternation of tranquil and aggressive episodes fails to build into a cumulatively sustained whole. Likewise in Hologram (2010), whose aural translation of this visual phenomenon affords a fastidious timbral interplay that rather fails to cohere in its later stages. No such doubts about Break the Stone (2009), a brief curtain-raiser whose melodic ideas are borne along by its rhythmic impetus through to the headlong close.
The steadfast advocacy of the BBC NOW and Jac van Steen is abetted by the immediacy of Cardiff’s Roddinott RaIl – resulting in a visceral statement of intent from a composer with whom to reckon.
I remember a time, and not so very long ago either, when ‘programme music’ was regarded with some disdain … at any rate by one school of modern composers. Possibly influenced by Webern, with his titles simply announcing the form of the work under consideration, these composers eschewed the use of descriptive titles altogether. This was presumably on the grounds that they wished their music to be judged purely on an absolute basis without reference to any extra-musical images or associations. Some composers – Morton Feldman springs to mind – have continued in this vein to the present day. In recent years there has been a real tendency in the field of modern composition for composers to affix a title to their works in an attempt to make their music more accessible to a non-specialist audience. Sometimes they are honest enough to admit that the title has been resolved upon after the music was completed. Sometimes the ‘programme’ seems to have no apparent connection at all with what the listener actually hears; but the trend seems to be inescapable.
These reflections are prompted by the fact that of all the works by Guto Pryderi Puw on this disc, all have programmatic titles – even the individual movements of the Oboe Concerto The composer explores this subject at length in his booklet notes (in both English and Welsh) for this release. The opening work, headed by a quotation from the Welsh mythological cycle The Mabinogion, is a case in point. It is inspired by an episode where the heroes open a forbidden door with disastrous consequences: the Welsh title translates as “unless I open the door”. This is a peculiarly Welsh bit of mythology, not so far as I am aware with any parallels in other European legendaria except possibly in the Greek tale of Pandora’s box. Unlike the case of Pandora, however, the opening of the door produces no didactic moral conclusions. It is preceded by the opening of two other doors without any dire results. There was an earlier (operatic) composition which treated of the legend in the shape of Tim Porter’s The Entertaining of the Noble Head, but Guto Puw’s music parallels the story with precision and on a much grander orchestral scale. The opening of the first door enables us to hear the singing of the birds of Rhiannon — also treated in symphonic poems by Joseph Holbrooke and James MacMillan — but the very present sound of the piccolo here lacks the ideal sense of distant enchantment. There are also immediately recognisable quotations from Welsh and Irish folk material. The opening of the final door has all the sense of doom and horror that one could look for. The work does however end somewhat abruptly.
The Oboe Concerto has titles assigned to the first movement (Rumour), the second (Chatter) and the finale (S…s…s…stutter), and these describe the nature of the music well. The composer describes the scherzo-like second movement as “very similar in character to being in the company of a very talkative person” and this sums up the effect precisely. On the other hand the untitled slow movement has a sense of wistful melancholy, very tender and beautifully inflected by David Cowley. This leads into a cadenza which finally resolves itself in an upbeat finale which the composer describes as “lighter”. The orchestra makes one hell of a racket which threatens in places to drown out the soloist altogether.
The disc as a whole is entitled Reservoirs, after the longest (and earliest) work on the disc. The piece was inspired by indignation at the drowning of a number of Welsh valleys in order to provide water for English industrial cities. As a piece of political and environmental protest it finds parallels in similar works by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies – to whose music, indeed, the material here has many points of similarity. As with Maxwell Davies, the music does not altogether avoid the suspicion that righteous indignation might overbalance the work as a whole. A march-like section around 9.50, for example, sounds more like mock-triumph in the style of Shostakovich than something more sinister. The brooding passage at 12.58 sounds more atmospherically appropriate leading to loudly protesting detached chords at 15.02 which recall the closing bars of Holst’s Mars.
Hologram, the most recent work on this disc, is also the least programmatic in intention, exploring “gradual and subtle changes of colour and texture” which gradually evolve into a unison. The final track, the overture Break the stone (also given a Welsh title, Torri’r Garreg) is, like Reservoirs, a work with political undertones inspired by the quarrymen who contributed from their earnings to the establishment of Bangor University; the overture was commissioned to mark the 125th anniversary of that event. The work makes use of masonry hammer and chisel, roofing slate and shell chimes, to “evoke the sounds of the quarry”, but these are not clearly audible in the rumbustious scoring although they would clearly have been visually effective in live performance. The short work (appropriately, 125 bars long) makes a fine upbeat conclusion to the disc.
The playing of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the always enterprising Jac van Steen is everything that could be desired. As I have suggested, the composer’s own programme notes help to elucidate the music admirably. He does not always however give the dates of the works, although these can be supplied (as above) from the internet; but the provision of these might have helped the listener to gain a sense of the composer’s progress over a period of five years. One’s only complaint about the presentation might be that the silences between individual tracks could have been a bit longer to avoid the sense that one piece is running into the next. It is unclear why this recording has had to wait three years for release, but it was well worth the wait.