This afternoon the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, conducted by Lothar Koenigs, presented three premières from composers Gareth Glyn (and team), Pwyll ap Siôn and Jörg Widmann.

Jörg Widmann © Marco Borggreve
Jörg Widmann
© Marco Borggreve

Working in reverse order, the Babylon Suite is taken from Jörg Widmann’s 2012 opera of the same name, based on the biblical city of Babylon. As I had both hoped and expected, the Suite had an undercurrent of knowing wickedness and a sense of self-awareness that one would find in a Stravinsky ballet score (Petrushka, for example). Widmann's grand and chaotic-sounding style (to give you a sense of the sound world, each violinist had an individual part) was entirely suitable and strongly communicative. What came across most directly from the score, however, was the knowledge, skill and affection with which the composer had written for the orchestra. The Suite was a timbral and textural wonderland, delivering striking contrasts throughout. The orchestra was large and included a heckelphone, swanee whistle, accordion and forest devil (frog caller). There were extended techniques: multiphonics on clarinet, the French Horns making imitative 'train noises' on their mouthpieces, the harpists strumming with their fingernails and the tam-tam being dipped into water after being struck. The 'love' theme was laced with molasses and not too overly sweet and the brief, rollicking scherzo contained echoes of Shostakovich (more of this later). My only – very minor – disappointment was the fanfare that gave way to the end of the Suite: its harmonic lucidity and tonal stability seemed to convey a sincerity that was somewhat removed from the dark humour and bite of the rest of the work.

Pwyll ap Siôn’s Chaotic Angels is a set of songs based on four poems by Gwyneth Lewis and written specifically for the tone and quality of Céline Forrest’s voice. Ap Siôn, a professor at Bangor University with specialisms in – interestingly – both minimalism (particularly Michael Nyman) and quotation/reference in contemporary music, describes his style as post-minimalist. The qualities of his songs today are probably best understood with this in mind. The first, Panic Attack, seems to have been conceived vertically (a quality which Michael Nyman recognises as a prominent one within his own music), with strong and propulsive bass lines. Furthermore, whilst the execution was far less brittle than certain Nyman recordings, there was nevertheless still a derivative strident, march-like feel to Ap Siôn’s first setting. In contrast, Angel of Healing had a full and sumptuous orchestration with a tint of Philip Glass’ recent neo-Romantic sweep. Again, bass notes are worth mentioning – this time, however, one felt the influence of Reich: sustained bass notes undercutting the texture at certain points, altering and enriching the harmonies in unexpected but welcome ways. My only uncertainty regards Ap Siôn’s setting of Angel of Dying, which makes for a far more bleak reading than his somewhat sentimental setting seems to betray. Nevertheless, I only want this taken as a minor comment on what I heard as a disparity between the music and the text, that certain lines went unrepresented, rather than a criticism of the music on its own terms, since it was certainly beautiful. These songs are worth an additional hearing or, with any luck, worth recording with Céline Forrest as soloist.

<i>Mametz Wood</i> © Christopher Williams
Mametz Wood
© Christopher Williams

Mametz Wood was based on Christopher Williams’ 1916 painting of the Welsh Division fighting – and hundreds of them dying – in the second year of the Great War. The ten themes and motifs were brainstormed and developed by teenagers at Michaelston Community College, Corpus Christi and Radyr Comprehensive under the guidance of composers Helen Woods and James Williams. Methods for writing these motifs included a quasi-Shostakovich approach of attributing notes to letters of the alphabet, then ‘spelling out’ in notation words that the teenagers had associated with the original painting. Finally, Gareth Glyn developed and orchestrated these ideas as the final stage of this collaborative work, although some themes had already been assigned harmonic and orchestration suggestions by the students. Indeed, Glyn proudly states that he hasn’t written a single note of the piece.

Koenigs maintained a relentless harmonic drive to the bulk of the work and there were certainly harmonic similarities to Shostakovich in places, as well. The work opened with an offstage trumpet stating a prominent, mournful theme, which is then taken up by the orchestra. A four-note motif, tutti, rearranged four times and reharmonised abruptly interrupts the darker majority of the composition, leading to a more sunlit final section and a warmer restatement of the opening bugle-call. It was a well-developed work that I would have liked to have been a few minutes longer.