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Guto Pryderi Puw: ’...ont agoraf y drws...’ – Concerto for Oboe – Reservoirs – Hologram – ’Break the Stone’ Overture

David Cowley (oboe), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Jac van Steen (conductor)
Recording: Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Millenium Centre, Cardiff (May 2011) – 71’52
Signum SIGCD378 – Booklet in English and Welsh

Asked to name a Welsh composer, most people would come up with Karl Jenkins, if they could come up with a name at all. Hopefully the increasing availability of Guto Puw’s music will change that. This is an important, original compositional voice that deserves to be heard outside of his native land. The present disc of his orchestral works provides an excellent entryway into his language. It is dense, mostly bleak music, and sitting through the entire program is admittedly not an easy task, but taken individually, the works reward repeated hearings.

I heard the world premiere broadcast of ’...ont agoraf y drws...’ (‘...unless I open the door...’) from the 2007 Proms, and the work was immediately striking in its intensity and communicativeness. There is a Mahlerian nature to Puw’s orchestral thinking. The program of the piece is drawn from Welsh mythology as collected in the Mabinogion and is similar to the Greek Pandora myth. Post-war celebrations in a hall with three doors can eternally vanquish past memories as long as the third of those doors remains closed. Puw depicts the three doors through three off-stage instrumental solos (trumpet, clarinet and violin) that recall the clarinet interludes in Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin. Fragments of folk tunes from the British Isles peek through the texture, which is an amalgam of modernistic devices and more traditional harmonies. The piece is performed magnificently, and the spatially displaced trio of soloists are well-caught by the engineers.

The Oboe Concerto is a five-movement work taking its inspiration from characteristics of speech. A substantial work, the virtuosity here is high and the scoring features prominent double reeds from the orchestra, out of which emerges soloist David Cowley’s exemplary oboe playing. The piece holds on to individual moods for longer expanses than the other works on the disc, and Puw seems more at liberty to allow his ideas to fully bloom and develop. There are hints of Britten (the Six Metamorphoses) and James MacMillan, but nothing that sounds derivative. Most arresting are the second movement (“Chatter”), the extravagant fourth-movement cadenza, and the finale (“S...S...S...Stutter”). The titles may come across as gimmicky, but they coax delightful and beautiful gestures from the composer’s pen.

Reservoirs is a tough twenty-minute span of music, representing the strife lying beneath calm surfaces. There are layers of immense music contrasting with jolts, and the harmonies, primarily cluster-like, create an oppressively intense atmosphere. This isn’t to say the piece is “ugly,” but it is a tough nut to crack. The shorter, subtly-evolving Hologram is also quite anguished, but the colorful, prismatic orchestration delights the ear throughout. The brief overture that closes the disc is an arresting, percussion-laden moto perpetuo that is only let down by its abrupt ending.

The disc is a great profile of Puw, and one hopes that Signum’s devotion to his craft creates more interest in his works by ensembles outside of Wales.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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