> Opera and Oratorio
Manahan Thomas; Terfel; Cywair; CF1, Côr Caerdydd, Côr Heol y March, Côr y Cwm and Sinfonia Cymru, Jenkins. Texts and translations. DG 002894796486
IN WALES in 1966, a coal “spoil tip,” perched on a mountain above Aberfan, a village in South Wales, broke loose, engulfing the Pantglas Junior School and a number of homes. One hundred and forty-four people were killed, including 116 children. Two Welsh media organizations commissioned Cantata Memoria to mark the fiftieth anniversary.
The composer, Karl Jenkins, made his name as the guiding light of the “Adiemus” recording series, incorporating ethnic instruments and folksongs and folk dances into New Age-y crossover productions. Here, with a libretto by Welsh poet Mererid Hopwood, his manner is appropriately more restrained, but it still displays diverse influences—a hint of Orff, or perhaps of Minimalism, in the patterns of the opening “Pitran, patran”; occasional passages of modal, folkish harmony; and some less formal, John Rutter-ish vocal solos. The chorus’s “Then Silence” emulates a Bach chorale; the gently dissonant “And once upon a time” evokes the postwar symphonists. The cantata’s somber mood—particularly in the “Cortège” movement, in which the names of the dead are chanted—is occasionally relieved by passages of warmth and light and works its way to a cautiously affirmative finish.
Jenkins leads a stirring, authoritative performance. The adult choruses are well blended and rhythmically alert, while the two children’s choirs are clean and a touch raw; intelligibility is touch-and-go. The strings of Sinfonia Cymru provide warm, expressive sonorities. Joo Yeon Sir’s soaring violin solo in “Lament for the Valley” is impassioned, though at one or two peak moments her intensity almost derails her.
Bryn Terfel—whose entrance is surrounded by a noticeable electronic halo—is straightforward and sensitive in the middle and lower ranges, but he makes heavier weather of the rising lines, and his softer singing veers toward crooning. The soprano, Elin Manahan Thomas, brings clear, lovely tones to “Did I Hear a Bird?” Elsewhere, she has pleasing verbal immediacy, though she whitens some upper tones, boyishly, and sounds vaguely pop-ish in “And once upon a time.”
That last point brings us to the recording, which, like the “Adiemus” albums, is heavily and conspicuously produced. The adult and children’s choirs were recorded separately from the orchestra and solo violinist, and the vocal and instrumental soloists were captured at still a third session! The mix, while adroit, inevitably disfavors some musical elements: Manahan Thomas, for example, is both backwardly balanced and impossible to locate aurally in the “Lament.” —Stephen Francis Vasta