Arwel Hughes Saint David Rubicon RCD1100

Arwel Hughes (1909-1988)
Dewi Sant (Saint David) (1951)
Oratorio for three solo voices, chorus and orchestra
Susan Bullock (soprano); Rhodri Prys Jones (tenor); Paul Carey Jones (bass-baritone)
BBC National Chorus of Wales
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Owain Arwel Hughes
rec. November 2022, Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, Wales
Sung in Welsh. Welsh text and English translation included
Rubicon RCD1100 [74]

I think it may be worthwhile beginning this review by sketching in a little bit of biographical detail about Arwel Hughes because readers may be unaware – as I was – of the details of his career. His son, Owain Arwel Hughes says something about his father’s career in the booklet, but I wish he’d said more and so I had to resort to the internet and, specifically, to the Dictionary of Welsh Biography. There I learned that Arwel Hughes was born and educated in north Wales. He studied at the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Vaughan Williams. Returning to Wales in 1935, he joined the music department of the BBC in Cardiff, which was then led by his almost exact contemporary, the composer and conductor Mansel Thomas (1909-1986); Thomas served as principal conductor of the BBC Welsh Orchestra (forerunner of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) between 1946 and 1965. Arwel Hughes spent his whole career with the BBC in Cardiff, eventually succeeding Mansel Thomas as Head of Music for BBC Wales between 1965 and 1971, after which he retired from the BBC. During his time in that post the investiture of Prince Charles (as he then was) as Prince of Wales took place in 1969 and it fell to Hughes to organise the musical side of the Investiture ceremony. Owain Arwel Hughes tells us that his father was a champion of the music of Welsh composers, including Alun Hoddinott, Daniel Jones, William Mathias and Grace Williams. Both Arwel Hughes and Mansel Thomas conducted performances of music by native Welsh composers, rendering important service to music composed in the Principality. Owain Arwel Hughes comments that his father was reluctant to use his position to push his own music; that’s entirely understandable. I wonder also if Hughes’ work on behalf of colleagues and in the service of music generally in Wales limited his own composing career. That said, I found a number of works listed online, including a symphony (1971) and a few more orchestral works, two operas and a handful of chamber works. It appears that choral music was a particular interest; I found 11 such works listed, including some for chorus and orchestra.

Arwel Hughes was commissioned to write a work for the 1951 Festival of Britain and he chose to write an oratorio celebrating Dewi Sant, the sixth century bishop of Mynyw (now St David’s) and patron saint of Wales. His libretto was compiled by the Welsh poet, broadcaster and literary critic Aneirin Talfan Davies (1909-1980) Davies drew on the Buchedd Dewi, a chronicle of the life of David written by Rhygyfarch in the 11th century. (I understand that modern scholarship has cast doubt on the historical accuracy of much of Rhygyfarch’s account.)

The libretto actually begins with Patrick coming to the Rosina Vallis (where David later founded a monastery) before travelling to Ireland. Thereafter, the focus is on David and a series of episodes from his life: his birth; his arrival at Rosina Vallis and the foundation of his ‘Holy House’ (the site where St David’s Cathedral now stands); and his final exhortation to his followers. Then, after the death of David he is both mourned and celebrated before the score ends with a strong plea to St David, ‘Einol dros ein gwlad’ (Plead now for our land).

The score plays continuously, though Rubicon have sensibly divided the recording into seven tracks. Arwel Hughes composed substantial parts for his three soloists, among which the baritone sings the part of David. There is also a good deal for the chorus to do. Though there are some passages for the orchestra alone, including a Prelude and some interludes, these are short; Hughes gives pride of place to the human voice.

The music is conservative in tone; I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense, though I reflected more than once while listening that, ironically, many of the composers whose cause Hughes fostered while at the BBC wrote in more contemporary idioms. Conservative it may be, but the music is accessible, attractive and unfailingly melodious. It also struck me as being well written for both the singers and the orchestra. However, I feel that the work has one major flaw. There are several occasions where Hughes could usefully have self-edited. As early as the first chorus, I wrote in my notes words to the effect that perhaps the section was a bit too long. This proved to be a harbinger of things to come. A little later, just before David comes to Rosina Vallis (track 4) there’s a scene-setting passage for the chorus sopranos. The music is very engaging – and it’s very well sung – but, to be honest, even this attractive episode risks outstaying its welcome. One more example will suffice. Towards the end, after the death of David, the tenor soloist sings ‘Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison’. This solo, which sets just those four words, lasts for slightly over four minutes and, to be frank, nothing would have been lost if the passage had been half as long. Rhodri Prys Jones makes a very good job of the solo and is undaunted by the occasionally punishing tessitura.

The performers show Dewi Sant in the best possible light. All three soloists sing with evident commitment. Paul Carey Jones invests David’s music with nobility and firm tone. Susan Bullock is well cast for the often-rapturous soprano music, though, as a matter of personal taste, I think her vibrato is a bit too much of a good thing at times. Rhodri Prys Jones brings clear, ringing tone and a pleasing lyric touch to the tenor solos. The BBC National Chorus of Wales makes a distinguished contribution; I especially admired the clarity and freshness of the sopranos, but their colleagues in the other sections also do very well indeed. Clearly, they have been prepared very thoroughly by their Director, Adrian Partington. I wonder how many of them are Welsh speakers (though no Welsh language coach is credited). The orchestral writing comes across very well indeed; the BBC National Orchestra of Wales plays expertly. So far as I can judge as a newcomer to the work, Owain Arwel Hughes conducts with commitment, as one would expect. This is not the first time that Hughes has recorded his father’s oratorio: he made a recording in 1990 for Chandos, also using the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales (CHAN 8890). However, that recording, which I’ve never heard, was sung in English rather than in the original Welsh text which is used here. The Chandos recording is still available, but only as a download, I believe. I looked it up on the internet and noted that this earlier recording plays for 68 minutes. That suggests that Hughes is perhaps a little more expansive in places this time around.

Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Phil Rowlands have recorded the music very successfully. You can hear lots of detail in both the choral and orchestral parts, while the soloists are very well-balanced. I’m afraid I have two criticisms of Rubicon’s documentation. One is that someone has decided it would be a good idea to print everything in white on a black background. Owain Arwel Hughes’ short essay can be read quite clearly. A much smaller font has been used for the text and translation and the result is that if, like me, you don’t have 20/20 vision you’ll find it a struggle to read. More serious is the omission of any notes about the work. The conductor’s short essay doesn’t really fulfil that function; that’s fair enough, but could Rubicon not have found someone to write in detail about the composer and the work? After all, both Arwel Hughes and his oratorio will be unknown to many. Furthermore, the libretto assumes a good knowledge of the traditions surrounding the life of St David. I can’t remember when I last had to do so much research of my own in order to be able to write about a work under review.

As I say, I’ve not heard the previous recording of Dewi Sant, so I’m in no position to make comparisons. However, I think that the fact that the work is here given in the original Welsh language must make this now the primary recommendation, especially as the performance and recording are excellent. I can’t escape reservations about Dewi Sant; had Hughes produced a tauter, somewhat shorter score, I think it would have been beneficial. However, on the other side of the ledger, one must not overlook the background: here, a Welsh composer was honouring the patron saint of Wales – and, surely, celebrating the Welsh tradition of singing. Arwel Hughes took the chance to make a firmly Welsh contribution to the Festival of Britain. He did so in an accomplished and demonstrably sincere fashion, It was fitting, therefore, that the 1951 premiere was given in St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. I’m glad that his son had the opportunity to record the oratorio again in Wales – and so successfully – but this time using the Welsh language.

John Quinn

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