Thursday, 14 February 2019

Nefoedd (Heaven) - Welsh Art Songs from Tŷ Cerdd

Nefoedd (Heaven) - a collection of Welsh songs with Sioned Terry and Brian Ellsbury from Tŷ Cerdd.  Twentieth century Welsh song is undergoing a surge of interest, which should come as no suprise, after Tŷ Cerdd's groundbreaking Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a  Lost Icon, (please read more here). Those new to the repertoire will also find much to delight in. 

The first songs in this collection form a miniature cycle.  Y Gog Lwdlas (The Grey Cuckoo) is a traditional Welsh text arranged by Mervyn Roberts (1906-1990), setting the context for My Welsh Home by W S Gwynn Williams (1896-1978), a ballad of a hill farm, the rustic mood extended by Williams's I Hear a Shepherd's Pibgorn, this time set as a lively jig. This set is held together by another traditional song Y Deryn Du (The Black Bird) in a particularly lovely arrangement by Dilys Elwyn-Edwards (1918-2012). Two songs in Welsh, evoking the purity of unspoiled Nature, glorying in the beauty of this unique language, framing two songs in English. Germans would use the term "Sensucht" : I don't know what the Welsh equivalent might be, but these songs capture that sense of of idealized longing, more elevated than mere nostalgia.

Three songs by Joseph Parry (1841-1903) show how Welsh song could be adapted to mainstream European tradition.  Parry started life as a coal miner, emigrated to America, and ended up Professor of Music at Aberystwyth and Cardiff.  He wrote Blodwen, the first opera in Welsh.  These songs,Gwraig Y Morwr (The Sailor’s Wife), Lady Maelor’s Aria - The Valiant Sir Howell, and My Wife, are ballads, similar to the parlour songs of Victorian times, and would have been enjoyed by Welsh speaking performers and audiences.  Ivor Novello (1893-1951)  studied at Oxford, but found fame and fortune in music theatre and popular song.  His The Land of Might-Have-Been (1924) may be included here because it bears a decided resemblance to Morfydd Owen's The Land of Hush-a-Bye (which can be heard on the
Tŷ Cerdd recording Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a  Lost Icon). Owen and Novello had several London connections in common, so it is possible that Novello had at some stage heard Owen's song, which, to my mind at least, is far stronger.  Thomas Osborne Roberts (1879-1948) represents yet another strand in Welsh tradition.  An organist, and participant at Eisteddfordau,  through his first wife, an opera singer, he moved in wide circles, and was respected by Vaughan Williams and Bantock.  He wrote hymns like Y Nefoedd (The Heavens) and songs like Min y Mor (By the Sea) where the piano part ripples and the voice part rolls like gentle waves.  

The highlights of this collection are the four songs by Meirion Williams (1901-1976) which prove  that Welsh song can reach the heights of sophisticated art song. In Pan Ddaw'r Nos (When the Night Comes), the voice and piano parts interact with great delicacy, creating a languidly sensual nocturne, despite the religious undertones of the poem. Y Blodau ger y Drws (The blossoms by my door) lilts sensuously and Yr Hwyr (The Evening) is restrained, the piano underlining the vocal line to great effect.  In Gwynfdd (Paradise) to a poem Crwys by William Williams (1875-1968) , the voice part is almost ecstatic, caressing the distinctive sounds of the Welsh language. The "blessed realm of Paradise", lies not in far off lands, but "within my heart for e'er to keep, like roses fair before mine eyes". 

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