REVIEWS OF THE COMMERCIAL RECORDINGS
The Fall of Gondolin (2018)
Chris Seeman, Tolkien Music Website
Given opera’s proven track record of bringing mythology to life on a grand scale, it is surprising that half a century and more of Tolkien-inspired music has, with few exceptions, failed to exploit this medium. Apart from Adam Klein’s aborted Leithian (1991) and Dean Burry’s The Hobbit (2004), Tolkien’s sub-creation has lacked an operatic expression worthy of its grandeur. Yet, as is so often the case when making such pronouncements, one must qualify one’s words with the caveat, “except for Paul Corfield Godfrey, who has already done it.”
The London-born Godfrey, who has lived most of his life in Wales, has explored Middle-earth through many forms of classical music, ranging from symphony to orchestral suites to settings for Tolkien’s own poems and songs. The 2017 release of a selection of these by Prima Facie Records (Akallabêth and other Tolkien works) has stimulated renewed interest in Godfrey’s most ambitious project, a four-part operatic interpretation of the great tales of the Silmarillion: Fëanor, The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, and The Fall of Gondolin. More than ten hours in duration, this Wagnerian-sized omnibus already holds the record for being “the largest-scale work of classical music written in Wales in the twentieth century.” Now, thanks to collaboration between Prima Facie and Volante Opera Productions, complete demo recordings (sampled instruments, real voices) of all four parts are in production. The first to be realised is the climactic Gondolin segment.
There is a poignancy to the timing of this double CD release, coinciding as it does with Christopher Tolkien’s posthumous publication of his father’s complete, constantly evolving Gondolin story (The Fall of Gondolin, HarperCollins, 2018) – though it is careful, for legal reasons, to distinguish the two works. Just as the Fall of Gondolin was the earliest tale of Tolkien’s legendarium to achieve written form in 1917, it seems fitting that it should now be the first instalment of Godfrey’s opera to be heard. A centenary to celebrate.
Presented as three triptychs comprising nine scenes framed by a prologue and epilogue, The Fall of Gondolin delivers nearly two hours of pure Tolkienian epic – Tolkienian not simply by virtue of its subject matter but more importantly by its libretto, which is 100% Tolkien’s own text. Or rather texts. In order to flesh out each essential movement of the story, Godfrey has made eclectic use of a variety of texts pertaining to the tale, much as the published Silmarillion was synthesised by Christopher Tolkien from the different manuscripts available to him.
Tolkien famously declared drama to be the enemy of fantasy. “Very little about trees as trees can be got into a play” (On Fairy-stories, p. 73). As an artform that necessarily focuses on persons rather than trees, one might imagine opera to be ill-suited to capturing the plenitude of Tolkien’s world. On the other hand, inasmuch as the singer’s role is to manifest and embody the intrinsic beauty and power of words, opera invites us to savour every cadence of Tolkien’s linguistic aesthetic. The result is an aurally diverse yet dramatically unified tapestry at whose heart lies Tolkien’s consummate wordcraft. In a world where Tolkien’s authorial voice has been muted by one too many “adaptations,” Godfrey’s unforced fidelity to both letter and spirit is refreshing.
Like ring composition in classical literature, the triptychs use Gondolin’s founding and fall as bookends for the central story of Tuor’s coming, which ignites the unresolved aftermath of Aredhel’s murder by Eöl, thus creating the conflict with Maeglin which leads to the city’s betrayal to Morgoth. The dialogue and the drama are all there, flawlessly executed by members of the Welsh National Opera. But the real gems of the libretto are the poetic verses Godfrey has integrated at appropriate moments into the prologue, during Tuor’s journey with Voronwe, at Tuor and Idril’s wedding, at the prelude to Morgoth’s invasion, and finally at the epilogue. These are some of Tolkien’s least known and most potent “word-pictures:” the Lay of Earendil and the Happy Mariners from Lost Tales, the Horns of Ylmir from The Shaping of Middle-earth, the Song of Ælfwine and the Hymn to Ilúvatar (in Quenya) from The Lost Road, and the Last Ark (also in Quenya) published in The Monsters and the Critics. It is these pauses in the story that enlarge its canvas, revealing glimpses of a wider world. It is this alternation between contemplation and action that makes Godfrey’s achievement truly Tolkienian.
The Fall of Gondolin is a superb rendition of an unparalleled story. Its greatest virtue lies in its ability to enhance rather than overshadow that story. Let us hope that one day it will be performed live with a full orchestra!
Jeroen Bakker, Unquendor
Most people familiar with John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s works (author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) are familiar with his posthumous legacy shared with the world by his son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien. The story of the fall of Gondolin can be found therein, of which the first publication came about in The Silmarillion – which was published in 1977 and most recently (2018) as a standalone story (and notes) simply as The Fall of Gondolin. Tolkien originally wrote the story (in its earliest form) as far back as 1917 containing hints of encounters he had as a soldier during the First World War just in the previous year.
Composer Paul Corfield Godfrey was born in London in 1950 and after a period of residence in Ireland now lives in Wales. As a young boy he sang in his local church choir and performed with the school orchestra, playing oboe and timpani. He studied composition at various times with Alan Bush and David Wynne. His works, amongst many others, include four symphonies, several operas including The Dialogues of Óisin and Saint Patric and Arcturus, both performed in Cardiff and elsewhere in South Wales; and a large body of music inspired by the writings of renowned author JRR Tolkien. Other works have been performed in London and elsewhere throughout the world. His manuscript scores are lodged at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
Over the course of the late 1980s and most of the 1990s he composed a cycle of four operas called ‘epic scenes from The Silmarillion after the mythology of JRR Tolkien’. Its fourth part, The Fall of Gondolin, is now published as a demo recording by Prima Facie Records. Each of the four operas based on these ‘epic scenes’ consists of three ‘triptychs’ (three-fold), a prologue and an epilogue. Each ‘triptych’ consists of three scenes. An earlier demo recording of the whole cycle was previously available and all the music and voices were performed by the composer on keyboards.
Volante Opera Productions is a group of enthusiastic performers who specialise in small performances and the creation of so-called guide vocals. Over the years they have raised quite a few pounds for various charities and performed in small local communities, bringing music and entertainment to schools and churches, the elderly, the demented and the impaired. The initiative was brought about in 1999 by baritone Julian Boyce. Most, if not all, are performers with Welsh National Opera. Recently they started recording projects in which they take ‘centre stage’.
In short, the opera tells the story of the downfall of Gondolin and how it came to fall. It is the continuation of the whole of the story as is told in The Silmarillion and by the composer summarised in his four-part cycle. The hidden city of Gondolin was built by the aid of the Vala Ulmo and Turgon is its king. Aredhel, Turgon's sister, leaves the city against his wishes; upon her return, she brings her son Maeglin. The both of them are secretly followed by Maeglin's father Ëol, a Dark Elf. Meanwhile Tuor, the son of the human hero Huor, is directed by Ulmo to warn Turgon of the pending doom. Tuor meets Voronwë (also by the hand of Ulmo) and together they travel to Gondolin. Turgon has a conflict with Ëol and condemns him to his doom, a death of his own choosing but his son will suffer the same fate. Turgon rejects the message of Ulmo given to him by Tuor. Tuor marries Idril, Turgon's daughter, but Maeglin wants her for himself; eventually his jealousy leads Maeglin to betray the hidden city to Morgoth the enemy.
A thing that stands out from the moment you put the demo onto your audio system is the sheer professionalism with which the singers do their respective parts; all are singers with Welsh National Opera and lent their voices voluntarily to the project by the way, and at times they allow themselves to show the fun they had creating this marvel.
Even though the previous demo recording of the work was (in retrospect) very rudimentary it is amazing how close (musically speaking) the new demo recording, even with the changes the composer said he’d made while recording the new demo, stayed to the previous demo – a demo that was recorded by the composer whilst performing all the parts of his own music on various keyboards and later mixing it all together, a painstakingly precocious work of labour for which we have to recognize the composer’s efforts. But at least as painstakingly laborious would have been Simon Crosby Buttle’s (of Volante Opera Productions) work on the new demo recording. He had to transcribe the complete score for The Fall of Gondolin in the (EastWest/ QuantumLeap) software and provide the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) with all the subtleties of a complete orchestral performance, from dynamics to performance techniques. I reckon his only relief was the fact that he didn’t had to teach the software to sing in Tolkien’s Elvish languages (which nowadays, with modern technology, is very well possible – as demonstrated by Arjan Kiel and Martin Romberg) as the voices used in this recording are real voices.
Those real voices are also the great strength of this recording; after hearing these voices in my head for many years, for the world only had the earlier keyboard recordings by the composer, it is amazing how this new demo recording is all one has ever dreamed of and so much more. I’m particularly fond of the opening of Scene Five (in the Second Triptych) “In a dim and perilous region” (better known perhaps as The Horns of Ulmo) in which (the human) Tuor tells (the Elf) Voronwë of his encounter with (the Vala) Ulmo.
The opening chorus of the prologue sets a tone of mystery and marvel; especially if you consider the fact that the choir only has eight singers, you come to realise the quality that this recording provides. Throughout the recording the choir never compromises and is most splendid in the final epilogue when true subtlety is required. Another choral highlight of this recording must, without question, be Scene Nine (a Hymn to Ilúvatar) in which all the voices need to sing, both choir and soloists.
The first solo voice we hear is the offstage voice of the Vala Ulmo (voiced by Martin Lloyd). The voice is deep and bright, telling Turgon to go to Gondolin but to remain faithful to the Sea and the West. Ulmo returns one last time in the Second Triptych (Scene Four) as he makes his appearance before Tuor. Tuor describes the voice best when he tells Voronwë of it in scene five, as he says, “the deep-voiced echoing sea,” even though much of the ‘sea’ comes from the orchestra.
Turgon is solemn and majestic and provides a hint of sadness as he reluctantly allows his sister Aredhel on her way beyond the protection of his borders. This is slightly turned to hope and joy upon her return in Scene Three. George Newton-Fitzgerald controls Turgon very well throughout the opera: Turgon’s panic, almost as if a frail old man, in Scene Nine as he sees his city on the brink of falling is wonderfully real, and hints of the transition the character makes throughout the story (from a secure ruler in happy times to a defeated old king in times of ruin and despair). Aredhel (voiced by Louise Ratcliffe) is a bit icy at times but I think that comes with the personality of the character. I miss the effect of her death, as I assume, she would have gasped for air, screamed or made some other sound. I mention this because of the effect that is heard upon the death of both Eöl and Maeglin.
Eöl, a Dark Elf, took Turgon’s sister Aredhel as his wife and she bore him a son Maeglin. Eöl (voiced by Julian Boyce) is first heard in Scene Two as he argues with his son. The initial opening phrase (“You are of the House of Eöl” is met with some anger but Eöl recovers soon and shows elegance and some majestic control in the continuation, with perhaps even a hint of kindness in the melodic section of “and not of Gondolin”. Now one would expect Maeglin to word-battle his father, but instead the scene makes a small leap in time as Eöl leaves and walks into the darkness and Maeglin turns to his mother asking her to leave together in search for Gondolin. Maeglin (voiced by Stephen Wells) is a bright and deep voice. Eöl returns in Scene Three as he is brought before Turgon by Ecthelion and is ‘welcomed’ to Gondolin by Turgon. Eöl refuses to stay and commands his son to leave with him. The melodies are beautifully controlled by Julian Boyce, the highlight for Eöl, as a listener, is the melody of the phrase “Yet if in my wife…as she sickened before”. The sheer cruel pleasure with which those words are uttered brings a musical depth to the character. And last of Eöl, but not least of Eöl, is the moment of his death. It is a little pun and shows the fun the cast had creating this album and it is not in the score (as far as I can tell from the vocal-piano reduction of the score that I have), but I can imagine any staged or filmed production of this opera would try and create an effect much like it. The screaming voice of Eöl as he falls even has a music to it and blends nicely with the orchestral dramatics.
Tuor is first heard in the second triptych (Scene Four) as Ulmo addresses him. The duet between them is one of the finest moments in the opera, well balanced voices beautifully carried by the synthesised orchestra. Both singers demonstrate their control over the music. Simon Crosby Buttle really gets to demonstrate his talent with the subtle (if you will allow me a certain fanciness) ‘aria,’ called The Horns of Ulmo, of Scene Five as he tells Voronwë of his meeting with Ulmo. Tuor is sitting bent over a campfire singing this powerful and emotional piece. For the singer it must really be difficult creating the dynamics that are needed, being seated I mean, but I imagine it also would be the highlight for the actor who voices Tuor. Personally, it is my favourite part of the opera. It cumulates various themes that reach a certain climax here.
Voronwë (voiced by Julian Boyce, in his second role - as he was Eöl too) first appears halfway through Scene Four. Voronwë survived a shipwreck at sea and is brought to Tuor by the hand of the Lord of Waters (Ulmo) at the end of the Ulmo-Tuor duet. A little disoriented, Voronwë asks Tuor about the current state of affairs and Tuor’s personae. His voice is a light spark. Voronwë’s largest text is at the end of Scene Four as he tells Tuor how he survived the salty sea. There are many melodic leaps (up and down) in this part for the voice, a real challenge I figure which Julian Boyce manoeuvres very professionally and well controlled.
Ecthelion is first introduced to us in Scene Three as he brings Eöl before Turgon. At the very end of Scene Five he holds two strangers on the road to Gondolin. They are Voronwë and Tuor. Ecthelion is the largest male support role with a key importance, from Scene Three one might figure it could be anyone leading Eöl before Turgon but as Ecthelion develops he becomes key in bringing Tuor before Turgon, striving between loyalty to the law and his King (Turgon) and Voronwë, his longtime friend. Not that the opera dwells on it, but it is stated in the line “Why do you set me thus cruelly between the law and my friendship?” Tuor, commanding the gate to open, however saves Ecthelion from this choice. Later Ecthelion proves his worth to his Lord by standing with him in a battle against all adds, “Here then will I make my stand” (before the end of Scene Nine). This is also the moment Maeglin follows in his father’s wake and the doom of Turgon is fulfilled. Philip Lloyd-Evans voices a great Ecthelion.
Hearing Morgoth’s voice (voiced by Laurence Cole) as if he devours the stage - which is such a great statement, even though in this part his vocal role is one of the, if not the, smallest vocal part(s) of this set (one line in Scene Eight), was a great delight.
As much as I feel The Horns of Ulmo are the highlight of the cycle for a man’s voice, the climax for female voice is without doubt the climax of the Epilogue “the light of the earth is ended and begun”. It is a difficult part as it demands great control of the voice for Idril (voiced by Anitra Blaxhall) not only by keeping the right tone and emotion but the chorus and the orchestra move away from Idril so she can’t really rely on their movements. Also, the words “is ended” are the climax (at least to me) but right after that the narration moves forward, almost as a sign of life itself - because now something precious has perished something new took its place with “and begun” and so we move on, and so does the music.
It may not be the electronic-music-pioneers’ dream come true that electronics could replace the entire orchestra and still feel the same as a real orchestra, but the technology has come a long way. This recording stands on its own and I am not familiar with any other project that uses this technology to produce not one, but four evening-filling operas. The orchestra might be just that, electronic samples, but each and every instrument has a distinct sound of its own and is highly recognisable as such. Now and again the sound might reflect that of an organ, but that is much more due to the limitations of the software than of the striving of Mr Buttle to get it right.
A friend of mine called it a musical, though I disagree with him - it is too classical for that; I think what he meant was that the music is accessible. And for calling an end to any discussion over whether or not this is actually an opera, the composer prefers, despite my frequent use of the word ‘opera,’ the use of ‘epic scenes,’ and epic they are both in story and in music.
This recording is breaking a lance for future productions. It shows performers don’t have to be afraid of the rights issue that comes along with the use of Tolkien’s texts if one takes a moment to arrange it in accordance with the wishes of the estate. It also shows that the music is accessible for a varied audience, whether they are experienced or unexperienced opera-going folks or just readers of Tolkien works or perhaps would have no clue about Tolkien at all. It also shows the music is very well performable for both instrumentalists and vocalists. In the matter of staging (or perhaps even filming – not as bad the 2004 film production of Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, I hope), I do not see too many problems and with modern techniques those can be solved (with 3D LED. light stages, computer generated images (CGI), projections, trapdoors, sound effects, etc.) and perhaps it is a matter of ‘less is more’ if you see problems in staging these ‘epic scenes’.
Chris Seeman said it best in his review of the Akallabêth and other Tolkien works album: “We can only hope that more of Godfrey's work will be recorded in the near future.” His wish, and the wish of many others, came true with the publication of this Fall of Gondolin recording. Let us hope it is only the beginning.
 ‘The Fall of Gondolin’ is the composer’s second album with Prima Facie, the first being ‘Akallabêth and other Tolkien works’ (PFCD059), of which a review can also be found on my website: http://jeroenvanluikenbakker.nl/akallabeth-eng/
Brian Wilson, Music Web
Having been shamefully remiss in producing my full review of this recording, I felt that I must at least present an interim report. The delay has been in large measure because I have simultaneously been grappling with the latest – and last – phase of Christopher Tolkien’s recensions of his father’s manuscript legacy. By chance it’s also entitled The Fall of Gondolin, though not directly related to Paul Corfield Godfrey’s opera of the same title. The opera is taken from Tolkien’s much earlier recension of his father’s work, published as The Silmarillion, whereas the new book presents the reader with various, intricate stages of Tolkien senior’s development of the story.
I’m certainly a dedicated Tolkien fan – my copy of The Hobbit has had to be renewed several times and the three-volume Lord of the Rings almost as often. As an undergraduate almost sixty years ago I sat at the feet of both Professor Tolkien, brought out of retirement for a term in the absence of his successor, and ‘young Mr Tolkien’ whose lectures on Old English and Norse literature opened new vistas down which I still like to stroll. But…I have to admit to finding most of the material which Christopher Tolkien has been assembling hard going, even The Silmarillion. Clearly Paul Corfield Godfrey is a more dedicated fan than I am, with a collection of songs which I very much enjoyed and another chapter in his Tolkien saga due out in 2019.
I’ve temporarily given up on the book to focus on the CDs. There’s no need to say much about the music and the recording process – real voices, mostly from Welsh National Opera, and a synthesised ‘virtual’ orchestra – because the two links above give you all that you need to know. I wondered how well this would work, but need have had no apprehensions; it works very well and it’s the only way such a project could have been realised. I need only say that the music is often hauntingly beautiful, that I’m very pleased that it has been realised and that I hope that it will reach and satisfy an even wider audience than the songs. Once again, it’s with Vaughan Williams that I make my comparison – in this case his Pilgrim’s Progress and its offshoots – though with no suggestion of unoriginality. I certainly commend it to all those who shared my enjoyment of the earlier album. Now I must finish (no longer ‘young’) Mr Tolkien’s book.
Christiane Steinwascher, Deutsche Tolkien Gesellschaft [Germany]
Tuor as Heldentenor and Morgoth as a dark bass: a group of Welsh opera singers set the legends from The Silmarillion to music.
Music plays an important role in Middle-earth, so it is hardly surprising that artists and composers are always inspired by Tolkien. The spectrum ranges from gentle folk sounds to heavy metal, from pieces for a singer to classical orchestral music. And even operas should not be missed in the musical interpretations of Tolkien’s works. The Welsh composer Paul Corfield Godfrey, for example, has created a cycle that retells the main events of The Silmarillion in an operatic form. The full-length operas Fëanor, Beren and Lúthien, The Children of Húrin and The Fall of Gondolin, as well as shorter works based on The Lord of the Rings , he wrote back in the 1980s and officially obtained the approval of the Tolkien Estates. However, the opera cycle has never been performed before.
In 2016 coincidence came to the rescue. In preparation for a memorial concert, the team of the Volante Opera Productions headed by Simon Crosby Buttle and Julian Boyce searched for music to texts by poets and writers who had served in the First World War. Buttle came across Godfrey’s Tolkien interpretations. Due to time constraints, the music was out of the question for the memorial concert, but this was the source of contact with the composer, who provided a large part of his compositions to the young opera singers from Wales. From first experiments with music software and individually sung pieces quickly became a bigger project. In collaboration with Godfrey, numerous friends, the Welsh National Opera and Prima Facie Records, a demo recording of The Fall of Gondolin has been available since last year. This August Beren and Lúthien will follow. The Children of Húrin and Fëanor are already under construction and will be completed in the coming years.
Despite the professional background, the musicians, who organize full-time concerts and opera galas, work only in their free time at the Tolkien operas. So much heart and soul is in the demo CDs. Buttle and Boyce had to master the challenge that The Fall of Gondolin was written for ten soloists and a full opera choir, but they have a total of only twelve singers available – all friends – for the mammoth project, in addition to their professional work for the Welsh National Opera to support. What could not be implemented on stage can be compensated for the admission through double occupations, division of labour and digital technology.
The orchestral music is assembled completely digitally. Of course this is not the same as a real orchestra and a choir of forty singers. But first of all, it would be a matter of making the music accessible to a wider audience, says Buttle. The limited possibilities also explain the chronological order. There is also an appendix, similar to Tolkien’s books: Godfrey’s version of The Lay of Eärendil and several short scenes from The Lord of the Rings. However, this is not a fifth opera, but a collection of individual pieces.
And does it sound now? “Various people have compared Paul [Corfield Godfrey] with either Vaughan Williams or Sibelius, and I agree with these comparisons. Plus, a contemporary twist can be heard, but it never becomes unnecessarily atonal,” explains Buttle. He draws the inevitable comparison with Wagner's Ring cycle himself. “Of course, Paul has created a large number of leitmotifs for different things - such as the Silmarilli, the main characters, different peoples or places. But that's the end of the comparisons with Wagner.” Incidentally, the entire cycle is only nine hours long, not fifteen as Wagner did.
“We do not expect to take the world by storm,” Buttle points out. “But the combination of the niche market opera and the niche market Tolkien is quite interesting.” The future will show how large the intersection is.
Beren and Lúthien (2019)
Chris Seeman, Tolkien Music Website
During the 1980s and 1990s, London-born/Wales-based composer Paul Corfield Godfrey undertook to write a cycle of operas based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, each treating one of its four “Great Tales:” Fëanor, Beren and Lúthien, The Children of Húrin, and The Fall of Gondolin. Last year, Godfrey began the ambitious project of recording complete “demo” versions (live voices, sampled instruments) of all four parts of this cycle in collaboration with Opera Volante Productions. The first of these recordings, The Fall of Gondolin (Part Four), was released out of sequence in order to coincide with Christopher Tolkien’s 2018 publication of his father’s corpus of writings on that tale. This helped generate interest in the project, giving it added momentum. The second recording, Beren and Lúthien (Part Two), has recently been released on Prima Facie Records.
Beren and Lúthien is arguably Tolkien’s most accessible tale of the Elder Days. Describing it as an “heroic-fairy-romance,” the author observed that it is “receivable in itself with only a very general vague knowledge of the background” (Letter 131). This was certainly my own experience as I listened spellbound to Christopher Tolkien’s abridged reading of the published version back in 1977 on Caedmon Records. Battle, Betrayal, Romance, Magic, Mortality – the story taps into some of our deepest drives with an immediacy and potency that never diminishes. In other words, it is perfect material for operatic treatment.
Clocking in at exactly 140 minutes, Godfrey’s adaptation is not an exhaustive performance of Tolkien’s tale. Instead, as its title indicates, it selectively depicts key “scenes” from the story that capture its essential ingredients. These scenes (nine in all) are grouped into three “triptychs” and encapsulated by a prologue and epilogue. In contrast with The Fall of Gondolin (which is similarly structured), Godfrey found it desirable to alter, omit, or compress certain details of the Beren and Lúthien story in order to simplify the plot and coherently link the scenes.
Some of these changes are fairly minor (from a dramatic standpoint) and do not significantly affect the flow of the narrative. For example, in the legendarium, Finrod gives his ring to Beren’s father, Barahir, as a reward for Barahir’s valor in the Battle of Sudden Flame; in the opera, while Barahir is still identified as Beren’s father, it is Beren who distinguishes himself on the battlefield and receives the ring directly from Finrod. This alters the wording but not the substance of Thingol’s dialogue with Beren in Scene Four.
BEREN: Death you can give me earned or unearned; but the names I will not take from you of baseborn, nor spy, nor thrall. By the ring of Felagund, that he gave to Barahir my father on the battle field of the North, my house has not earned such names from any Elf, be he king or no.
THINGOL: I see the ring, son of Barahir, and I perceive that you are proud, and deem yourself mighty. But a father's deeds, even had his service been rendered to me, avail not to win the daughter of Thingol and Melian.
BEREN: Death you can give me earned or unearned; but the name I will not take from you of baseborn, nor spy, nor thrall. By the ring of Finrod Felagund that he gave to me on the battlefield of the North, my house has not earned such names from any Elf, be he king or no.
THINGOL: I see the ring, son of Barahir, and I perceive that you are proud and deem yourself mighty. But deeds alone avail not to win the daughter of Thingol and Melian.
Other omissions are more impactual. The character of Huan, the sentient Hound of Valinor, who plays a major supporting role in Tolkien’s story, is missing from the opera – perhaps understandably, as it would be difficult for a human actor to credibly impersonate a dog on stage while conveying the gravitas of that character’s words! Huan’s disappearance also means there is no final battle between him and Carcharoth, the Wolf of Angband – who does appear in the opera. Instead, Beren succumbs to Carcharoth’s dismemberment of his hand after delivering his climactic lines before Thingol. (The fate of the Silmaril devoured by Carcharoth is not addressed.) In the absence of Huan, Lúthien herself gets to deliver the hound’s crucial speech:
From the shadow of death you can no longer save Lúthien, for by her love she is now subject to it. You can turn from your fate and lead her into exile, seeking peace in vain while your life lasts. But if you will not deny your doom, then either Lúthien, being forsaken, must assuredly die alone, or she must with you challenge the fate that lies before you—hopeless, yet not certain.
From the shadow of death you can no longer save me, for by my love I now am subject to it. You can turn from your fate and lead me into exile, seeking peace in vain while life lasts. But if you will not deny your doom, then either I forsaken must surely die alone, or I must with you challenge the fate that lies before you: hopeless, yet not certain.
While there is an obvious logistical need to shift these words to a different character (and Lúthien is the only one on hand to deliver them), I felt this actually enhanced Lúthien’s agency, allowing her to speak for herself rather than being spoken for – which is consistent with the initiative she takes elsewhere in the canonical tale. I draw attention to this because most of Godfrey’s speech-switching decisions do not seem to me to be merely mechanical or dictated solely by necessity; they have a positive effect on the capacity of the libretto to convey the emotions of the story.
One of the interesting choices Godfrey makes concerns the conclusion of the story. In contrast to the published Silmarillion, in which Lúthien’s prayer before the Powers grants both her and Beren a renewal of (mortal) existence on Middle-earth, the opera follows an earlier, fragmentary ending to the Lay of Leithian (HoMe III.308-309) that leaves the lovers’ fate uncertain. The opera’s libretto offers a similar lack of closure:
Mandos, a shrouded figure at the centre of the semicircle, raises his hand. Lúthien dies upon the body of Beren—or, indeed, it may be that Beren rejoins Lúthien in life.
Godfrey’s preference for ambiguity, again, is not, I suspect, purely a matter of dramatic expedience. It speaks to the fluidity of the Beren and Lúthien tradition as Tolkien left it to us – and as his son has amply documented in his 2017 book on the subject:
“In this way, also, there are brought to light passages of close description or dramatic immediacy that are lost in the summary, condensed manner characteristic of so much Silmarillion narrative writing” (p. 13).
Godfrey’s libretto, which freely alternates among the different extant versions of the story, capitalizes on such passages. The result, textually speaking, is a patchwork; from an operatic standpoint, however, it’s a tour de force of words delivered with passion and epic grandeur. This is hands-down the most potent actualization of Tolkien’s writing I have heard to date.
Much of its success is to be credited to the members of the Welsh National Opera who have contributed their consummate vocal skills to the project. Julian Boyce (baritone), who voices Beren, adroitly captures the indomitable resolve of Tolkien’s hero. (See especially his delivery of Beren’s oath to avenge Gorlim in Scene Two.) Jasey Hall (bass) exudes diabolical villainy in his volcanic portrayal of Sauron. (See his exchange with Lúthien in Scene Six.) As Lúthien, Angharad Morgan (soprano) deploys her high range to convincingly convey her character’s divine power. (See Scenes Six and Seven.)
Godfrey’s scene selection, like his text selection, privileges the mood and atmosphere. As the opera progresses, recognizable motifs are established for key characters and events. What I appreciate as a listener is how Godfrey allows time for each of these themes to emerge organically from the narration and dialogue. There is no rushing from one scene to the next; it takes however long it takes. This is especially true of Scene Three, which marks the introduction of Lúthien and the love theme. One of the ways Godfrey draws this scene out is by interspersing first-person dialogue drawn from the Lay of Leithian with third-person choral chanting of Aragorn’s re-telling of the tale from The Fellowship of the Ring. This gives the viewer/listener both “interior” and “exterior” views of the lovers’ fateful encounter. Another interesting juxtaposition of Silmarillion with Lord of the Rings material is in Scene Six, where Godfrey uses Sam’s song in the Orc-Tower (calling for Frodo) as the lyrics for the call and response Beren and Lúthien sing to find each other in Tol-in-Gaurhoth.
As with The Fall of Gondolin release, the liner notes for Beren and Lúthien are handsomely adorned with Ted Nasmith’s artwork and contain helpful explanations of what is happening in each scene. There is also a link to Godfrey’s website that contains the full libretto along with citations of Tolkien’s sources that were drawn upon for each portion of it. The only thing lacking is a live performance of this work with a real orchestra. Let us hope that, with the release of the remaining two demos, interest in Godfrey’s operas will reach a critical mass and invite a live production of the whole cycle. Now that would be epic!
Stuart Sillitoe, Music Web
I once had the opportunity to discuss with Paul Corfield Godfrey his obsession with the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien. I admitted that the Silmarillion was one of my least favourite of the author’s books, but I remember being impressed by Paul’s passion for it and his ongoing project to set scenes from it to music. Here we have an example of that commitment which is, for me, more interesting and entertaining than the book, making those scenes leap off the page, so to speak, although they are still not enough to make me want to re-read it. These scenes are not being released in the order in which they appear in the book; Parts Three and Four appeared first, with no sign of Part One as yet.
Before considering the music itself, we should look at the performance, which is billed as a “Demo Recording” - that is to say that it employs small forces in order to have the music heard without the prohibitive costs of hiring a full chorus and orchestra. Instead, we get a pared down chorus of eight rather than the many voices the piece calls for; these are recorded separately and blended by the engineers, which, while not ideal, serves the purpose of the production well. However, I must say that there were times that I longed for greater vocal depth from the chorus. The orchestra is an effective, if at times a little odd-sounding, digitalised effect; the sounds are produced by feeding Corf’s score into a computer which features a sampled orchestra - that is recordings of real strings, woodwinds, brass and the rest- then the sounds are fitted digitally to the score. The result is quite pleasing, but on occasion the notes sound a little clipped and short, even organ like and a little more slide in the strings would be nice. However, it is a huge improvement on the whole idea of a synthesised electronic sound, the overall effect really bringing this music to life and giving the word a new impetus.
The music itself begins with epic portent, creating a sense of foreboding as it describes the Battle of Sudden Flame and its consequences. This sets up the story on the lines of the great Norse and Icelandic sagas, which would have impressed Tolkien as a scholar of the sagas; indeed, Gandalf’s horse from The Lord of the Rings is called Shadowfax, which Tolkien lifted directly from the Edda, to continue the idea of a great oral tradition. The music is woven through the words well and it does feel as if you are listening to the retelling of a great story which is portrayed very dramatically without being operatic. As such, the music serves the text rather than the text serving the music, which gives the work the feeling of a modern take on an English music drama from the Victorian era, with more than a hint of Wagner thrown in for good measure. The result is quite engaging and an interesting presentation of the text, which I would, I think, benefit from being played by larger forces. This is a production which leads me into searching out other epics from the collection.
The solo singers are quite good; I would like a little more security in their projection and a little less vibrato, especially in the male voices, but that is not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the work. The chorus is good, but the overall effect is a bit limiting; there are passages which deserve a good deal of heft behind them, and although the singing is perfectly adequate, I longed at times for a little doubling up. The orchestral music performed via a digital processor leaves something to be desired, but it is a lot better than some recordings I have heard using electronics to produce orchestral sound. The notes sound short and precise and there is a lack of sliding or portamento which give the score a dryness, but again does not detract too much from the listener’s enjoyment.
What I will say is that when you get to the more expansive instrumental sections, especially on the second disc, the software seems to work better, with the orchestral sounding more organic. There is enough interest here, both in the music and the performance, to make you long for a fully backed studio recording. However, the project was to set out to produce a demo recording of a work that would otherwise probably not have made it on to disc and as such it has achieved its aim admirably, for which Prima Facie and Volante Opera Productions should be richly applauded. This is a rewarding recording of a rich and complex work which will bring enjoyment to many - and not just to Tolkien fans.
Mike Parr, Music Web
Beren and Lúthien is the second part of a series of what I might describe as extended cantatas based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Tolkien was an author who seems to have transformed the lives of so many generations, something that has largely bypassed my life thus far. The sum total of my time with Tolkien’s work was reading The Hobbit when I was in my early teens. Much later on in life, approximately 3 years ago, I was given a copy of his Letters from Father Christmas, which is a charming collection of letters that he penned to his children every December detailing the exploits of the Life of St Nick. It was likely the happiest and most amusing of all of the works that he penned. I certainly enjoyed it far more than The Hobbit. Therefore, I must begin my review of this CD release acknowledging the fact that I have no real familiarity with the world of Middle Earth and especially The Silmarillion; similarly, no prior expectations of what to expect from such a series of works.
This CD qualifies to be among the most curious recording that has come across my path in many years. Labelled as a “Demo” recording it was created by bringing a series of solo singer from the Welsh National Opera and combining them with a digitally sampled orchestra. There were some special digital tricks reserved to create a choral sound from recording the individual soloists. I will begin by stating outright that the Prima Facie label and Volante Opera Productions deserve to be commended for their commitment in producing a commercial recording on a very limited budget to make this composition available to a wider audience than it would otherwise have had.
The orchestral and choral forces, courtesy of of EastWest software/Quantum Leap, have been simulated to approximate what such a large combined force would sound like when performing the work in a live concert. Paul Corfield Godfrey has been inspired to create music that is in turn dramatic and lyrical in nature. I received a very good impression of his compositional skills and the textural clarity of his orchestrations. I perceived some very remarkable use of the percussion section scattered throughout the work. Much of his choral work put me in mind of the sound world of Rutland Boughton’s opera The Immortal Hour. However, much of the time I had the distinct impression that I was hearing less than half of the work. It is rather like viewing the Battle of Hastings through the images on the Bayeux Tapestry; you are confronted with images of the effect without any trace of the human emotions or causes that brought you to that point. In this case my rather human ears were unable to discern any of the passion or emotional context of the work. Perhaps the more finely tuned ears of the Elvish audience will find it to be more edifying than I did. I feel that most of this is due to use of the sampled orchestra. The soul of the orchestral sections is eerily absent from the proceedings; a situation which cannot be attributed to any compositional shortcoming on Mr Godfrey’s part.
One of the most difficult challenges for me was not being able to make out any of the sung text while listening. I listened to the entire recording in my audio room and came away feeling frustrated by the aural halo effect that has been placed around the soloists. This was done no doubt to manufacture the effect of a live concert hall performance. On listening to the CDs in my car system I found that with the closer proximity of the speakers that I was able to make out about 10% of the text.
While I am disappointed with recording overall I want to clearly state that I will happily encounter this work again in a live performance or radio broadcast. I regard this recording as a step towards the greater goal of achieving its first true performance. My impression of the work as a whole is that it would make for a really innovative event, just perfect for a Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall once such things can resume in their full glory.
Brian Wilson, Music Web
A sincere apology is in order: having reviewed and recommended Paul Corfield Godfrey’s The Children of Húrin, I was privileged to receive this recording of another of his most convincing adaptations of the work of JRR Tolkien, as curated after his death by his son Christopher – sadly, also no longer with us. I also enjoyed this musical treatment of an episode from one of the Tolkien off-shoots that I have never quite come to love, despite having happy memories of having attended lectures by Tolkien father and son. As with so many of the other recordings in this Retrospective, I started to assemble my thoughts – and found Stuart Sillitoe ahead of me in almost every respect, including a shared distinct preference for the musical adaptation over the original. I didn’t share SSi’s small reservations about the presentation of the music. Would that some wealthy patron had become as obsessed with PCG’s music as King Ludwig of Bavaria was with Wagner’s, so that we might have had a ‘proper’ recording. As it is, this virtual presentation works very well for me. It’s a second-best – but so was Bach when the burghers of Leipzig appointed him Thomaskantor. The notes in the booklet should be supplemented by a visit to PCG’s website. Next instalment, please.
The Children of Húrin (2020)
Chris Seeman, Tolkien Music Website
Tolkien declared eucatastrophe (the happy ending) to be the hallmark of authentic mythology:
It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failureâ€¦ it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. ("On Fairy-stories," par. 99)
Considered as a whole, Tolkien's "Great Tales" of the First Age exemplify this dictum: out of sorrow comes unlooked-for hope and, in the end, victory for all that is good, true, and beautiful. But Tolkien understood that the "truth" of the happy ending hinges on its prior recognition of the harsh reality of Evil; to ignore, minimize, or explain away unmerited suffering and humanity's powerlessness to redress it is to empty eucatastrophe of meaning.
The Children of Hurin is Tolkien's attempt to keep faith with the darkness, giving full weight to the combined force of diabolical malice and self-defeating hubris in human experience. As Morgoth announces to Hurin in the story's opening dialogue,
“upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill-counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death.” (The Children of Hurin, p. 64)
Capturing this unrelentingly lachrymose plotline in a musical medium would not seem to present insurmountable difficulties. After all, opera is no stranger to tragedy, and The Children of Hurin contains many scenes that readily lend themselves to visual enactment. Yet, more so than its counterparts, this third installment of Paul Corfield Godfrey's Silmarillion cycle exposes the limits of operatic adaptation. Godfrey's creative grappling with those limitations has generated an experience that opens up striking new vistas into the heart of one of Tolkien's most moving tales.
The basic enemy is time: how to distill the essence of an extremely intricate story driven by complex motives and events into an approximately two-hour performance without sacrificing either mood or narrative coherence? To a degree, this challenge is shared by all four parts of the cycle. But in the case of Feanor, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin, one is dealing with plots that are more amenable to linear condensation: a vendetta, a union of two lovers, the destruction of a city. By contrast, the very nature of Turin's quest “to elude an intangible curse that pursues him through each (very different) phase of his life“ resists abridgement.
Godfrey conducts the necessary vivisection, omitting all episodes from Turin's life that are not absolutely essential for getting him to Brethil, and reducing the supporting cast to a skeleton crew. (Mablung, for instance, absorbs all of Thingol's essential lines.) What remains is intelligible on its own terms, though there are a few gaps that may mystify someone who is not already familiar with the story. (How did Saeros die? When was Turin captured by Orcs?)
Lost content is made up for by signature exchanges between the principals and choral forebodings of doom (adapted mainly from the Narn i Chin Hurin and The Grey Annals). Amidst all the compression, Turin's development as a character is sometimes obscured, though by Scene 7 its contours emerge more fully...just in time for him to die! One pleasant surprise is the retention of lines by the key female characters that reveal the inner conflicts that make them such well-rounded characters (Morwen: Scene 1; Finduilas: Scene 4; Nienor; Scene 6).
Members of the Welsh National Opera have rendered yeoman service with their stellar vocal talents in bringing the libretto to life. Lawrence Cole (bass) delivers yet another chilling portrayal of Morgoth in the opening scene, setting the tone for what follows. Simon Crosby Buttle (tenor) and Angharad Morgan (soprano) shoulder the burdens of the titular children Turin and Nienor. Given their recognizability from Godfrey's previous Silmarillion recordings (Morgan voiced Luthien in Beren and Luthien, Buttle voiced Tuor in The Fall of Gondolin), the present recording owes much of its atmosphere to these singers' versatility, switching from the portrayal of nigh invulnerable heroes to all-too-vulnerable victims.
Of the many fine performances that inhabit this recording, the one that impacted me the most was Helen Greenaway's portrayal of Morwen, Hurin's stoic wife who sends their son into exile (Scene 1), accompanies their daughter in search of him (Scene 6) and reunites with her husband just before her death (Epilogue). Her depiction is quite essential to the opera's closing words ("She was not conquered…) as they are the only victory Tolkien allows to mitigate the family's otherwise wholesale descent into darkness. Greenaway's interpretation of Morwen's quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) desperation, coupled with her emotional emptiness in the Epilogue, poignantly conveys the true devastation of Morgoth's malice.
Another particularly effective gem is the synchronous duet sung by Buttle and Morgan (representing the inner thoughts of each character), which concentrates into a few brief lines the awakening and growth of Turin and Nienor's love for each other over a period of time:
NIENOR: (There lies a shadow on this man, and I am afraid. But he has escaped from it, even as I. And is he not worthy of love?)
TURIN: (From the green mound she came, the wraith of a slain maiden on the grave of Finduilas. Is that a sign, and how shall I read it?)...Time passes. We have waited, and now I will wait no longer. I will go back now to war in the wild, or I will wed you, and go never to war again, save to defend you if some evil assails our home.
UNSEEN VOICES: She takes him with joy; and spring turns toward summer.
Although this does not strictly pertain to the recording I am reviewing, I draw attention to the full libretto (available on Godfrey’s website) because the staging instructions it includes illustrate another way in which the composer has capitalized on the visual-performative potential of the operatic medium to enhance the viewer's experience. The titular Hurin plays no active role in the story while his children are alive; he is a spectator of their tragedy, confined to an enchanted bleacher seat in Angband. We the readers know this, but the narrator never pauses the story to show us Hurin's reactions to events as they unfold "in real time." Having the drama played out by real actors on a stage enables Godfrey to transcend this limitation of the written word. At each "dyscatastrophic" turn of the story, the actor playing Hurin becomes visible to the audience, elevated on a pillar above the stage
Scene 1: At once total darkness engulfs the door where Morwen still stands. Turin remains unmoving at the front of the stage; his father watches motionlessly from his raised pillar far above.
Scene 3: Turin stands, with the sword Anglachel in his hands, looking down at the body of Beleg while the storm and lightning crash and flash upon the scene. The face of Turin suddenly lights up with recognition and horror. The storm reaches its climax; Gwindor turns away and crouches down with his hands over his eyes. Hurin on his pillar reaches out his hands towards his stricken son, and again remains motionless. Gwindor slowly picks up the sword Anglachel, placing it in Turin’s hand; and leads him slowly out. Hurin, on his pillar, allows his arms to drop once more loosely to his side. The lights fade and the Curtain falls.
Scene 5: [GLAURUNG] If thou wilt be slain, I will slay thee gladly. But small help will that be to Nienor or Morwen. No heed didst thou give to the cries of the elf-woman. Wilt thou deny also the bond of thy blood? Glad shall thy father be to learn that he hath such a son; as learn he shall. Until this moment Hurin has been again motionless upon his pillar; now, as before, he raises his hand as if in supplication towards his son. Turin, as if bereft of his own will, turns abruptly away and rushes across the bridge…For a moment, Nienor remains as though transfixed. Then she turns, her face and mind a blank expression of despair, and stumbles running back across the bridge and towards the river. Hurin on his pillar sinks down in despair as the Curtain falls.
Scene 7: When the curtain rises the scene is largely covered with green-leaved trees: to the right of the stage these completely shroud one of the standing stones but to the left the other stone is still to be seen, standing alone and overlooking a deep river gorge which lies towards the back of the stage. Hurin still remains on his pillar; but now he lies prostrate, clutching at the sides of the stone, and his face is shrouded and invisible. It is dawn, and the day is slowly breaking. Turin is seen lying exhausted beneath the standing stone by the edge of the gorge. Dorlas appears through the woods leading a number of men; they stop in amazement at the sight of Turin, then Dorlas comes across and gently rouses him.
Scene 9: [TURIN] I am blind, blind, groping since birth in the dark mist of Morgoth! Go back to Doriath, and may winter shrivel it! This only was wanting. Now comes the night! Immediate darkness covers the scene. A cold light illuminates the very front of the stage; in it Turin stands alone, holding up his sword. Hurin on his pillar has risen and stands looking tensely towards his son.
In a very real sense, then, Hurin's mute presence supplies a unifying thread to the narrative. His embodied reactions serve as a kind of omniscient commentary on events. It is with him that the audience is encouraged to identify, as he and they share a perspective his children lack. A brilliantly constructed irony.
In his notes, Godfrey explains that The Children of Hurin was historically the first of the four Silmarillion operas he composed, and that it was initially conceived as a free-standing work (before he thought of anthologizing it as part of a cycle). Inadvertently, though, elements of The Children of Hurin as originally written link it with its neighbors. In terms of the present recording, there is Laurence Cole's performance of Morgoth. (He also voices Morgoth in Beren and Luthien, The Fall of Gondolin and, I presume, Feanor.) As Morgoth is the only character in this opera who also appears in the others, his colloquy with Hurin (Scene 1) establishes both continuity and contrast with the more "eucatastrophic" Beren and Luthien that precedes it.
A more substantial link with Beren and Luthien is Godfrey's use of poetic lines from The Lay of Leithian for tone-setting choral interludes. The first, introducing Scene 8 (Nienor's naked flight through the woods), excerpts lines from Sauron's song-duel with Felagund ("Around the gloom gathers…), emphasizing despair. Conversely, to accent the hope ignited by the Blacksword in Brethil, the interlude to Scene 9 reprises lines from Beren's song of parting ("Though all to ruin fell the world…yet were its making good, for this"). This reminds the listener that the tragedy of Turin and Nienor, dark as it is, has become tributary to the larger cycle.
We eagerly await the recording of the remaining opera (Feanor) so that all four may be enjoyed together in sequence.
Brian Wilson, Music Web
First an acknowledgment: Paul Corfield Godfrey (hereafter PCG) is a fellow MusicWeb reviewer, though we have never met. A further acknowledgment: I am something of a Tolkien ‘nut’, having had the privilege of being lectured by the Great Man when he was brought out of retirement during my second year at Oxford, and by his son Christopher on Old English language and poetry in my first year. This new recording is dedicated, among others, to Christopher, who did so much to edit his father's works.
Some time ago I reviewed two earlier Tolkien-inspired pieces: Akallabêth and other works and The Fall of Gondolin. My review of The Fall of Gondolin was meant to represent my interim thoughts but, in the event, I never got down to writing about it in more detail – nor did I ever finish Christopher Tolkien’s edition of the book of that name: it’s still on my ‘to do’ pile, along with all the other things I never completed, such as learning Sanskrit or completing an MPhil. The Recommended status stands for my appreciation of the music and the performance, as it does also for this instalment. Those wishing to avoid a rambling journey through Old English and Old Norse poetry should take that Recommended award at face value and jump to the end of the review.
This is one of two recordings which I have recently been invited to review on the basis of an earlier interest in a particular repertoire. A few days before receiving The Children of Húrin, I was sent a very different album, Tudor composer Nicholas Ludford’s Missa Sabato, performed by La Quintina on Paraty (220191). I’m very pleased that I said ‘yes’ in both cases; my very positive review of the Ludford, another Recommended recording, should be online about the time that you read this.
Like The Fall of Gondolin, the new recording uses real singers, drawn from Welsh National Opera, and a virtual orchestra. As before, the virtual orchestra is completely convincing. If we can have recordings of virtual Hauptwerk organs, as on all but the latest of Divine Art’s series of recordings of the music of Carson Cooman, why not of a full orchestra? I’m not sure how it works in either case, but I don’t need to know. (Presumably the organist sits at a ‘real’ set of keyboards and pedals and selects the registration digitally.)
If anyone was born to set the works of Tolkien to music, it would have been Wagner, for whom the world of Germanic mythology was as inspiring as it was to Tolkien father and son. So deeply was Norse mythology engrained in Tolkien that he took the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit directly from the Vøluspá. The difference being that, whereas he could read the Norse sagas and the Poetic Edda in the original, Wagner had to rely on a translation of the Vølsungasaga, which he skilfully interwove with the Middle High German Nibelungenlied.
Unfortunately, Wagner is not around any longer, so the task falls to PCG, whose translation of The Children of Húrin into a two-hour music drama is also a work of considerable skill. As well as being based on the material which Christopher Tolkien used for the book of the same name, the work ends with the return of Húrin from his pinnacle of suffering, an episode taken from The Wanderings of Húrin. It’s taken half a millennium to appreciate the music of Ludford on that other recording; I hope and trust that PCG doesn’t have to wait that long. One day, maybe, his work will be produced on stage with a real orchestra, which is certainly not meant to play down the value of this recording; until then, these CDs will serve very well.
Inevitably, there are shades of the Ring cycle in the mix, as in the power of Glaurung the dragon to exercise a paralysing terror similar to that of Fafnir until he encounters the man who knows no fear, Siegfried. The notes refer to Tolkien’s interest in the Finnish Kalevala for the unwitting incest between brother and sister, and the music briefly quotes Sibelius’ Kullervo, but Wagner also provides an analogue in the liaison of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre.
Without suggesting overt influence from Sibelius, other than the acknowledged quotation, or Wagner, The Children of Húrin at its best deserves comparison with both composers in terms of the power of the music. In fact, in an interview on his website, PCG plays down any parallels with Wagner, as Tolkien himself did in saying that the only comparison between the two Rings was that both were round. I could add that both were objects of beauty which, through human greed and lust for power, brought untold misery. Such considerations aside, PCG manages to achieve a genuinely epic style without detaining us for anything like the span of a Wagner opera.
Nor does he believe that the more ethereal moments in his music – of which there are plenty – owe anything to the influence of Hildegard of Bingen, whose music has become so familiar following The Gothic Voices’ rediscovery of it on Hyperion. Again, though there may be no influence, it’s not amiss to compare the two in terms of emotional content; as in The Fall of Gondolin, the music here is often hauntingly beautiful. And PCG does admit to the influence of Vaughan Williams, which I hear in all his music, though sifted through his own style. I also hear the influence of Holst.
It may be less popular than it was to look for archetypes but, as an inveterate Jungian, I can’t help seeing them in much of this work. We begin with the evil Morgoth who wields power unjustly. There are many parallels: both Wotan/Odin and Zeus/Jupiter, though powerful beings, are both capricious and subject to Fate. If one phrase sums up the Germanic view of things, it occurs in the poem The Wanderer: Wyrd bið ful aræd - fate is wholly inexorable. If it is your fate to be cursed by an evil power, as Húrin is by Morgoth at the outset, there’s little that you can do about it. And if a dragon makes you forget who you are and you commit incest with your brother, as Niënor does, that’s wyrd at work, too.
Having been felled by Morgoth’s curse, Húrin ends the Prologue transfixed on a high place, like Prometheus bound to his rock or the valkyrie Sigrdrifa/Brunhilde surrounded by fire on her peak. I’ve already mentioned the brother/sister incest theme and the best myths often involve dragons; Glaurung was the father of the fire-drakes of Angband. It’s remarkable that a creature that doesn’t exist should feature in unconnected cultures. Germanic mythology was, of course replete with dragons; even heroes like Beowulf were not immune to them, but the simple hobbit Bilbo was able to find the flaw in the armour of Smaug. Even after the restoration which follows the Downfall of the gods, the dragon Nidhogg flies over the plain, carrying corpses: Þar kemr inn dimmi dreki fljúgandi, / naðr fránn neðan frá Niðafjöllum; / berr sér í fjöðrum — flýgr völl yfir — /Niðhöggr nái. [Vøluspá 66] Like Beowulf, deserted before the dragon's lair by all but one of his retainers, so Dorlas deserts Túrin before he and Glaurung destroy each other.
The dragon Glaurung is despatched by being stabbed from below. PCG's version, where the dragon is depicted symbolically by a mask, is less specific about this than the book but, like Smaug his vulnerable spot is underneath, and Túrin despatches him like Sigurð in Fafnismál, in the Edda. Unlike Sigurð, however, the hero doesn’t lurk ignominiously in a ditch until the dragon passes over him, but does the deed valorously, like Wagner’s Siegfried.
Tolkien’s work in general and The Children of Húrin in particular is permeated with the sense of loss which underlies Old English and Norse poetry. Elsewhere he illustrates ‘the sadness of Mortal Man’:
Where now the horse and the rider?
Where is the horn that was blowing? ...
They have passed like rain on the mountain,
like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
[The Two Towers, Chapter 6]
The lines, an adaptation of part of the Old English poem The Wanderer [Hwær cwom mearg hwær cwom mago?] apply well to the events of The Children of Húrin, where even well-meaning action occasions death and loss. Equally apt are later lines from the same poem:
Eall is earfoðlic eorþan rice;
onwendeð wyrda gesceaft weoruld under heofonum.
Her bið feoh læne. Her bið freond læne.
Her bið mon læne. Her bið mæg læne.
Eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð .
[All is suffering in the earthly realm; / the action of fate governs the world under the heavens. / Here fortune is fleeting. Here friends are fleeting. / Here man is fleeting. Here maiden is fleeting / All this earthly abode becomes worthless.]
Where this mood permeates the action, PCG’s music reflects it perfectly. But even the deepest Germanic gloom leads to new hope. After the downfall of the gods (Ragna røk, Götterdämmerung), in the Edda, the prophetess foresees ‘coming up a second time / Earth from the ocean, eternally green.’ [Sér hon upp koma öðru sinni / jörð ór œgi iðjagrœna; Vøluspá, 59]. So, at the end of The Children of Húrin, PCG interpolates a moving reunion scene in which Húrin returns from his captivity in Angband to the tomb of Túrin, where Morwen is dying. So CD2 opens, with the Prelude to Scene 7, music worthy of mention in the same sentence as that of Sibelius, and closes with music of loss shot through with hope and tenderness. The detailed notes aptly refer to gentle benediction and an unravelling of the web of myth through which the tragic history has been viewed. Húrin’s final words are significant ‘She was not conquered’. It’s a very different ending from that of Götterdämmerung, but it’s worthy of mention in the same sentence – and there’s not much that is, in my book.
Christopher Tolkien was an excellent lecturer. His Friday lectures on poetry, always delivered wearing a bow tie, were so interesting that some friends and I spent more than usual on lunch that day, discussing the topic of the lecture. One Friday, going home for the weekend, I was so inspired by his account of Njal’s Saga that I risked missing the train to drop off via Blackwells to buy the Penguin translation. I caught the train by a whisker, but, head full of Norse literature, forgot that I was still wearing my gown until people started giving me odd looks as I changed trains in Birmingham.
His editions of his father’s work, unfortunately, don’t for me quite match the charisma of those lectures. They read a little too much like scholarly editions of medieval texts, often with a confusing wealth of variants, as if he were comparing the slightly varied accounts of Sigurð’s/Siegfried’s slaying of the dragon and his encounter with Sigrdrifa/Brunhilde in different versions. It’s very much to the credit of PCG’s versions that they hang together musically and make narrative sense. The notes point out that the music was composed well before Christopher Tolkien’s final edition of the story in 2007, and is independent of it.
The advantage of a virtual orchestra is that it plays exactly what it’s programmed to play, with no fluffs. The singers, however, provide an element of potential human fallibility – potential but not actual in the case of this recording. Indeed, almost all of the singers are carried over from the fine team who recorded The Fall of Gondolin. All give good account of themselves, despite the music being seriously demanding at times.
The recording is good, sound effects included, and the notes helpful, though I strongly recommend also following the link to the website, where you will find more detail, a libretto and musical examples.
I once had a colleague who thought that her students deserved better grades for trying hard. I'm sure that composing so much music on Tolkienian and other themes is thoroughly deserving, but my award of Recommended status, as for The Fall of Gondolin, is certainly not for that reason alone, or because this is music by a colleague. I apologise for taking a ramble though Old English and Norse poetry, but I do urge readers to make the project worthwhile by buying the CD or the download. The discs are available at mid-price, around £14; the download is less expensive, around £10 in lossless format and comes with the pdf booklet. There is even a 24-bit download. If anything, I was even more impressed by this than by Godfrey’s other Tolkien-based works.
Mike Parr, Music Web
Paul Corfield Godfrey continues with his epic compositions of Tolkien’s Silmarillion with this recent CD release of The Children of Húrin. As in my previous review of Beren and Lúthien, I find it difficult to navigate the story of these works as I am not a Tolkien aficionado and I am experiencing them purely from the standpoint of a musical entertainment; and there is plenty of it to experience.
The Children of Húrin should seem to be a culmination of the work that Mr Godfrey has done on this series, although I note from the final page of the booklet that there are at least three more CD sets forthcoming that will look at other works by the celebrated author. It appears that for this composer Tolkien is a source of limitless inspiration for his muse. Immediately on placing the first disc into my player an impressive-sounding prelude launched forth from my speakers. In the booklet Godfrey speaks about Jean Sibelius and in particular his Kullervo Symphony as a model for what he was trying to achieve. I am also able to detect influences from Arnold Schoenberg’s early masterpiece Gurrelieder, Karol Syzmanowski’s King Roger and even some of Bohuslav Martinů. Once or twice I felt the influence of Pietro Mascagni peeking out at me in the score. These are all exalted company in which to find comparison, and I really applaud Mr Godfrey for the breadth of his achievement and the quality of his writing and facility in orchestration.
For the Beren and Lúthien release, my largest frustration was being unable to make out the words that were being sung by the soloists and the choir. I can happily report that that was not the case on this set perhaps because a larger share of the music goes to the soloists rather than the choir in this work. However, being able to understand the text more did not mean that I had any better grasp of the plot. If I have one criticism of the work, it is that I think that Mr Godfrey may be trying to include too much of Tolkien’s literature in his work at the expense of a clear and understandable narrative. Even so, I found much to enjoy in this set and I look forward to the day that this work will be heard with a real orchestra and full chorus when his achievement will make its full effect. On this release the soloists are never less than reliable and often they seem truly engaged in what they are doing.
For myself, the digitally sampled orchestra remains a barrier to full enjoyment but it does what it sets out to do, which is to get this music out in the world to be experienced in the hope of one day achieving its first live concert.
Akallabêth and other Tolkien works (2017)
Stuart Sillitoe, Music Web
I have had the pleasure of knowing “Corf” for a few years now, through our involvement in the committee of the Federation of Recorded Music Societies. In that time I have come to appreciate his passion for music making and education in his adopted Wales. This is, however, the first of his own music that I have heard. I was not sure what I was going to get, especially since most of the music here reflects his interest in the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
The first work on the disc, Daeron, is an arrangement for flute and piano of music originally composed for a work entitled Beren and Lúthien. Based upon Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, it tells the story of Daeron, the minstrel of Doriath. This miniature tone poem has a tonal beauty that reminds me of turn-of-the-twentieth-century French music. It makes a fine opening to the disc. Nicola Loten is really convincing in this music. She has a beauty of tone which brings out the best in this music.
The cycle Tolkien Songs, the earliest work on this disc, presents six songs based upon the author’s most famous books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The cycle belongs among the great English storytelling songs, and there is a nod to the folk tradition. In the first song, Strider, we meet Aragorn, the true king. The music portrays the pensive aspect of the character’s makeup and points to the heroic aspect, which is to come later in the story. There is also a lively duet for tenor and baritone, the Drinking Song, which introduces Merry and Pippin. My favourite of the Tolkien songs is Alive without breath, about the scheming Gollum who plans to regain the ring. I have distant memories of hearing a setting of Roads go ever on by Donald Swann, but the tender walking song on this CD makes a great final piece of the cycle. The notes point us to the texts available online. When you visit the site, you learn that there is a seventh Tolkien song, Farewell to Lórien. It is a real shame that this is not included here.
Shadow-Bride is another Tolkien song setting. It comes from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and is not related to the other song settings. Here the voice and piano are joined by the excellent viola played by Niamh Ferris. It is employed to depict the woman of a doomed couple and her role in the relationship. This is a strangely attractive work, given the subject matter, and portrays a sense of empathy.
The following song cycle, Mysteries of Time, is the only work here that is not inspired by Tolkien. It brings us instead a collection of five settings of poems by the likes of Gerald Manley Hopkins and William Buttler Yeats. The cycle contains the longest song setting on this disc, The Queen of Air and Darkness, a setting of Poul Anderson, who is a poet new to me. The composer describes it as “a sort of counterpoint to Goethe’s Erlking,” with the different singers portraying the differing aspects of the poem. This powerful poem has been given a dually powerful setting, one which is sympathetic to the feelings portrayed in the poem.
With the final work on the disc, Akallabêth, we return to Tolkien’s world—that of The Silmarillion. This tone poem for solo piano, the longest single piece on the disc, deals with the downfall of the kingdom of Númenor. This is a striking piano piece on a grand scale, with aspects of hope and desolation clearly identified in the music. This is Connor Fogel’s only appearance on this disc. He acquits himself well, giving a strong performance.
Over all the performances are good. I do find that the soprano, Tara McSwiney, has a little too much vibrato in her voice for my liking, especially in the second of the Tolkien Songs, Song of the Eagle; it is less prevalent in her other contributions. This is my only gripe, with my personal preference for a more pure voice being tempered by my love of period performance, which not everyone likes. Andrew Henley and Adam Jondelius are both in fine voice and are convincing in the songs, whilst Immanuel Carl Maria Vogt proves an accomplished accompanist. This is strong melodic music born out of the twentieth century tonal tradition. The composer describes each track in detail in his extensive notes.
Brian Wilson, Music Web
First a couple of acknowledgements. Paul Corfield Godfrey is a fellow MusicWeb International reviewer and I yield to none in my love of JRR Tolkien. My copies of his Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are in dire need of replacement after having been so heavily used though I find some of his other works, brought to life by his son Christopher since his death, rather heavy going. When I read English at Oxford, almost 60 years ago, lectures by ‘young Mr Tolkien’ on Old English Language and Literature were de rigeur for first years before prelims.
Tolkien senior was persuaded briefly out of retirement for a term while his successor as Bosworth and Rawlinson Professor was away. He gave a series of lectures on the thesis that the Hengest mentioned in Beowulf and the associated Battle of Finnesburh was none other than the brother of Horsa, with whom he founded the Jutish Kingdom of Kent. The lectures must have been so spell-binding that I can’t find that I made a single note but they were edited and published as a book some years ago. I’m sorry to say that though I enjoyed the book as well as the lectures I find the thesis unconvincing, believing Hengest and Horsa to be no more convincing as historical figures than Woden, from whom other Old English royal families, including Alfred the Great, claimed descent.
If, like me before I received this CD for review, you are not yet conversant with Godfrey’s many compositions and specifically his interest in Tolkien, a good place to start is with his website. I’m not going to repeat the information given there but rather to give some idea of the kind of music on the new CD which is, I believe, his first recording.
Another colleague, Stuart Sillitoe, has already reviewed an advance copy of this recording—already available direct from Prima Facie and on general release by the time that you read this review.
The title work Akallabêth, which ends the CD, stands out from the rest by reason of its length, the fact that it’s the only piece for solo piano, its difficulty and its power. The request for a really challenging piece came from James Meaker, but the work was taken up by Connor Fogel who plays it here and is fully able to cope with all its complexities. That’s the stand-out work but there’s nothing there or on the other tracks to offend the susceptibilities of stylistic stick-in-the-muds like myself.
Nor is there anything superficial in any of his settings. By chance Hyperion have just released a 2-for-1 album of the songs of Donald Swann, including one setting of Tolkien and one of Yeats (CDA68172). Although these are by no means insubstantial, as Godfrey remarks in his notes, the Tolkien and Yeats settings are altogether lighter than his own songs. At times these reminded me of Vaughan Williams’ settings of Housman’s poetry (On Wenlock Edge). I shouldn’t be surprised if, with continued listening to these very accomplished performances, well recorded, some of Godfrey’s music becomes as well-loved as the Vaughan Williams.
Poets and composers don’t always provide the best guides to their own works but the notes which accompany this CD are excellent—so full, in fact, that there was no room for the texts. Normally that gets a black mark but they are easily available online.
This was also my first encounter with Prima Facie Records, champions of British Contemporary Music, but it has certainly encouraged me to check out some of their other offerings, several of which are available to stream from Naxos Music Library. Alan Rawthorne’s music may not be exactly contemporary but Prima Facie offer the only generally available recordings of his Clarinet Concerto and Oboe Quartet No 1 along with his Cello Sonata and Oboe Concerto on PFCD053 available from Prima Facie Records or to stream from NML.
A double discovery, then, and a doubly happy one—of both the composer and the label. I look forward to hearing more from both.
Chris Seeman, Tolkien Music Website
In the annals of Tolkien-inspired music, Paul Corfield Godfrey is the proverbial oliphaunt in the closet. Over the course of a distinguished half-century career, he has written no fewer than seventeen opera related to Tolkien’s legendarium, making him one of the most prolific composers in the genre. Indeed, were these works to be performed in toto, their cumulative duration would exceed Howard Shore’s soundtracks to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by many CDs. But alas, Godfrey’s musical vision has gone largely unsung and unheard. Until now. Thanks to the efforts of UK-based Prima Facie Records (a classical sub-label of ASC Records), a first glimpse of Godfrey’s sprawling achievement is now available. Akallabêth and other Tolkien works enlists a septet of talented musicians led by world-class pianist Immanuel Carl Maria Vogt to realise four offerings from Godfrey's repertoire. The result is a diverse ensemble of musical pathways into the heart of Tolkien’s sub-creation. Heading the menu is Daeron, a dialogue of piano and flute that evokes the titular minstrel's heart-panged search for his lost Lúthien. The ponderous pace of this piece effectively communicates Daeron's interminable and ultimately futile wanderings, but it also—to this reviewer’s ear—captures Tolkien’s arresting image of Lúthien dancing "to music of a pipe unseen." Godfrey's composition gives acuity to that memorable line. Next come Tolkien songs, vocalised settings of Strider, Song of the Eagle, Alive without breath, Drinking Song, In Western Lands, and the iconic Roads go ever on. Alternating among soprano, tenor, and baritone, this sampling invites the listener to savour the simplicity and aesthetic power of Tolkien’s wordcraft. Shifting from the core of the legendarium to its outliers, we are treated to a vocalised setting of Shadow-Bride. In contrast to other musical interpretations of this poem by Intermezzo and Caprice, Godfrey’s rendition strikes a tensive balance between the melodic and the macabre that is as entrancing as the lyrics, masterfully delivered by soprano Tara McSwiney. The most ambitious Tolkien-related piece on this album is the eponymous Akallabêth, a seventeen-minute symphonic poem in rondo form that aurally traces the story of Númenor's glorious rise and tragic fall. Executed by British pianist Connor Fogel, this solo performance adds gravitas to Tolkien's oft-recounted dream of the primordial wave enveloping the land. This album is testimony to the profound impact Tolkien’s art has had on a handful of contemporary classical composers who have answered his wish that "other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama" should become his "partners in making and delight" in leading the listener to an experience of enchantment. We can only hope that more of Godfrey's work will be recorded in the near future.
Göran Forsling, Music Web
I must admit that I’m a novice when it comes to Tolkien and his highly personal world. I heard the novel The Hobbit being read on the radio almost fifty years ago and remember that I found it entertaining and quite fascinating, but I never went any further in exploring the Tolkien legacy. Consequently I may be the least suitable person to review the present disc, the music of which is so closely related to Tolkien. But my philosophy is that music should be possible to enjoy in strictly musical terms, and that’s the way I approached this disc. Moreover two colleagues have already reviewed it and Tolkienists (if such a word exists) are advised to read them as well.
The opening piece, Daeron for flute and piano, is a beautiful pastoral, melodious and soothing, but there are ominous chords in the piano that give signs of something unknown menacing. Nicola Loten plays with strong feeling. This is also the most recent composition on the disc. The Tolkien Songs Op. 9 that follow are instead the earliest. Strider is clearly indebted to folk music, as are several of the others. Song of the Eagle is as majestic as the bird in question, and Alive without breath is truly beautiful. Drinking Song is a duet for tenor and baritone, a bit boisterous and near the end of the song there is a bell signal: “Time, Gentlemen, please!” isn’t it? In Western lands has an unmistakable Britishness about it. Best of all, to my mind, is the concluding Roads go ever ever on: soft, very beautiful and magical.
Shadow-Bride for soprano, viola and piano may be influenced by Johannes Brahms, not in musical terms but in the combination of voice, viola and piano. Again there is British atmosphere, and again there is something mysterious around it.
Mysteries of Time is the only work here with no references to Tolkien. Here I was fascinated by the darkness and cold of Graveyard, Adam Jondelius’s deeply involved reading of the highly atmospheric Yeats setting The seven woods of Coole, growing to a thrilling climax, yes, even two! And in the dramatic and intense The Queen of Air and Darkness the three singers join forces to great effect.
The final number, Akallabêth for solo piano, is also the longest. It is strong and powerful but with lyrical moments of great beauty. A fascinating composition, where the final section is a funeral march. Technically it must be a challenge for any pianist—and also for the instrument. Connor Fogel plays it with verve and commitment. Commitment is in fact something that characterises all the musicians involved in this programme, which was recorded on one single day. Paul Corfield Godfrey’s extensive liner notes are excellent and the song texts are available online.
Accessible and captivating music that should appeal to a wide audience.
Jeroen Bakker, Flammifer [translation from Dutch original]
Of all the music that the works of Tolkien inspired over the years Mr Corfield Godfrey’s is the one I most awaited a widely available release to be realised; a real live and breathing version of his own synthesised versions would be so welcome. In my earlier articles I referred to Mr Corfield Godfrey’s synthesised version with great enthusiasm, so I’m very glad I can finally write about a live and breathing recording of his Tolkien related works.
What does the listener need to know about these works? Not much, because the composer is so kind as to provide extensive liner notes in the accompanying booklet, which is by modern standards is a rare but most sought and sound relief.
The album opens with the beautiful piece Daeron, Op.45, a duet for flute and piano. The performance of the work is excellent; Nicola Loten (on flute) really breathes life into this wonderful piece. Those whom have heard the synthesized version will notice the close resemblance the performance has to it. In my audio-system (I’m an audiophile by nature and for details on my system see at the end) I could distinguish breaths and the clinking of the valves of the flute which really gets me into the piece and tells me this is real and not a dream.
The second work on the album are the Op.9 Tolkien Songs, a series of six songs from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The series starts with Strider (All that is gold…), wonderfully joyfully sung by baritone Adam Jondelius, a light and somewhat joyful song especially if you are used to the much darker version from ‘The Tolkien Ensemble’.
The series continues with Song of the Eagle brightly sung by soprano Tara McSwiney. It is very tempting for me to compare this song (just for the fun of it) to Stephen Oliver’s version for the BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but I won’t. On this album Tara McSwiney demonstrates she can handle various styles of music; in this song she demonstrates she has an ‘old soul’ in her voice and does a wonderful traditional ‘vibrato’ (or trilling) with her voice. This a real demanding task in the higher register of the voice if you still want the words to be audible and distinguishable. She does a superb job in the tradition of the great opera divas.
On track 8 of this album she sings the Op.33 Shadow-Bride; this song is in style much more modern than the Song of the Eagle which is more ‘classical’ if you will, and with a more subtle use of the ‘vibrato’ style and some very neat ‘clear’ passages she truly demonstrates she can manoeuvre her voice to great effect in either field. Talking of Shadow-Bride the performance of the viola by Niamh Ferris is excellent, lovely tremolos very neatly balanced with the piano and the vocals. Niamh Ferris is part of the highly appraised ‘all lady’ Mavron (string) Quartet.
Less obvious Tolkien connections are found in the continuation of the album with the Op.44 Mysteries of Time. According to the composer musical elements of this work found its way into some Tolkien compositions. I’d like to dwell on two of these five songs. Earlier I wrote: “I’ve been in the fortunate position to have heard three samples from an earlier recording, including The seven woods of Coole (track 12), a poem by William Butler Yeats. It is a beautiful fragile performance clearly performed in a traditional style. Its opening words remind one vaguely of the Tolkien poem ‘In the willow-meads of Tasarinan…’ (perhaps because of the Tolkien Ensemble’s version that was recently on my mind).” The song on this album is sung by Adam Jondelius who takes the listener by the hand and walks with you into the seven woods. Mr Jondelius, who does a wonderful job, don’t get me wrong on that, performs this song with a more down to earth kind of performance than the earlier recording. However what I loved so much about the earlier recording that I heard was its ethereal fragile feel where the singer really took me wandering about in the seven woods on my own rather than take me by the hand as this performance does. It still is a wonderful piece and very enjoyable.
The second song I’d like to talk to you about is The Queen of Air and Darkness, where it all comes together; it is a song sung by the three singers on this album and guided by the main piano player (Hamburg-born Immanuel Carl Maria Vogt who does a superb job throughout the album). The singers who had proved themselves throughout this album to be excellent singers take up the challenge to sing together, which they do equally professionally. I’ve have no idea of the truth of the following, but I imagine a recording chamber or stage with a piano at its centre and these three singers standing near it, or even leaning on it, and enjoying themselves; this song really ‘sparkles’ with joy from all the performers, one can feel the performers are very comfortable with each other’s company.
The title track of this album is kept for last, the Op.42 Akallabêth as performed by pianist Connor Fogel. According to the composer the performer (with his consent) made a few tempo alterations which are in favour of the work. The piece is dynamic and demanding but tirelessly performed by Fogel. The composer said this work was commissioned but lay in wait before it was finally picked up by Fogel. Without offending the pianist who commissioned the work initially I’d like to say it waited in just for Fogel to take it up. In comparison to the version played by the composer on a synthesiser (of which I own a copy) this version is so much more alive, I don’t know if it is because of the tempo changes or the fact this is recorded on a real piano, either way it is a great piece of music that many pianists will find challenging, but I feel it is a piece well worthy of becoming a standard work for pianists who like to distinguish themselves from their peers.
Overall the recordings seem to be made in close proximity of the microphones (or so one does suspect) which provides an audio-image to the listener in which he (or she) might feel to be in close proximity of the performers, as if they are performing in your living-room. This might make the instruments and performers seem larger than they perhaps are. The acoustics are fine, the quality of the recording is otherwise excellent, the instruments and voices are nicely separately audible and the words sung are very well understandable. This might not be an audiophile recording but it certainly is not a cheap rip-off you can buy in massive quantity with little to no quality in any convenient store, this recording is excellent and well worthy of your attention, and above all its price can’t be an issue.
This is but a taste of what musical Silmarils this composer might shine in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and the transition of the music from the synthesized versions of his scores to these marvellous recordings prove Paul Corfield Godfrey to be a great composer worthy of a broadening of performances and recordings. So if you want a new music to descend on your Middle-earth or simply add something special to your classical collection, go run through the seven woods (beware of the Queen of Air and Darkness) to get your copy of this album, sing a Drinking song and run back through Western lands on Roads that go ever ever on and hide like Strider in your perfect audio-spot and listen to this recording, being Alive without breath and let The mystery begin.
Nancy Martsch and Jeroen Bakker, Beyond Bree [American Mensa newsletter],
abridged version reprinted in Minas Tirith [American Tolkien Society magazine].
Renowned Welsh composer Paul Corfield Godfrey is best known within the Tolkien world for his extensive four-part Silmarillion operas; however his Tolkien repertoire is far more extensive than that, considering that the composer has been composing Tolkien music for over fifty years by now.
Mr Corfield Godfrey was first introduced to the works of Tolkien in 1956 by his then sister-in-law Lois Mitchison (daughter of Naomi Mitchison) who gave him a copy of The Hobbit. Only about ten years later he got to read The Lord of the Rings. In 1968-69 he started working on operas based on The Lord of the Rings and, later on, based on The Silmarillion; for the latter he was aided by Christopher Tolkien. The young Mr Tolkien allowed the composer to see and use various versions of texts which later found their way into The History of Middle-earth. Recordings of his works are rare and few. Fortunately this is slowly changing.
The composer’s earliest Tolkien works on this CD are the Op.9 Tolkien Songs starting with Strider. It was written in the early 1970s while in the process of “contemplating an…extravagant cycle based on The Lord of the Rings and incorporating The Hobbit, which would be spread over thirteen full evenings.” A substantial amount of the work was even completed. Strider is wonderfully joyfully sung by baritone Adam Jondelius, a light and somewhat joyful song especially if you are used to the much darker version from ‘The Tolkien Ensemble’.
The series continues with the Song of the Eagle brightly sung by soprano Tara McSwiney. McSwiney demonstrates she can handle various styles of music; in this song she demonstrates she has an ‘old soul’ in her voice and does a wonderful traditional ‘vibrato’ (or trilling) with her voice. This a real demanding task in the higher register of the voice if you still want the words to be audible and distinguishable. She does a superb job in the tradition of the great opera divas.
She also sings Shadow-Bride; this song is in style much more modern than the Song of the Eagle which is more ‘classical’ if you will, and with a more subtle use of the ‘vibrato’ style and some very neat ‘clear’ passages she truly demonstrates she can manoeuvre her voice to great effect in either field. Talking of Shadow-Bride the performance on the viola by Niamh Ferris is excellent, lovely tremolos very neatly balanced with the piano and the vocals. Niamh Ferris is part of the highly appraised ‘all lady’ Mavron (string) Quartet.
Akallabêth, the title track, was composed at the request of James Meaker but lay in wait for many years until Connor Fogel (the performer on this recording) took it up. It is a rondo for solo piano, a very demanding work which incorporates many elements of the whole of Mr Corfield Godfrey’s Tolkien music. According to the composer the performer (with his consent) made a few tempo alterations which are in favour of the work. The piece is dynamic and demanding, but tirelessly performed by Fogel. It is a great piece of music that many pianists will find challenging, but we feel it is a piece well worthy of becoming a standard work for pianists who like to distinguish themselves from their peers.
Perhaps one of our favourite pieces included on this disc is its opening piece Daeron. The performance of the work is excellent; Nicola Loten (on flute) really breathes life into this wonderful piece. We could distinguish breaths and the clinking of the valves of the flute which really gets us into the piece and tells us this is real and not a dream.
The song cycle Mysteries of Time is a non-Tolkien work, but yet has some ties to it. This is especially true of the first, The mystery, whose melodic and thematic material found its way almost unchanged into the opening part of Beren and Lúthien and indeed returns at the end of the love scene in that work.
We’ve been in the fortunate position to have heard an earlier recording of The seven woods of Coole, a poem by William Butler Yeats. It is a beautiful fragile performance clearly performed in a traditional style. Its opening words remind one vaguely of the Tolkien poem ‘In the willow-meads of Tasarinan…’ Here it is sung by Adam Jondelius who takes the listener by the hand and walks with you into the seven woods. Mr Jondelius, who takes the listener by the hand and walks with you into the seven woods. He does a wonderful job, don’t get us wrong on that, but performs this song with a more down to earth kind of performance than the earlier recording. But it still is a wonderful piece and very enjoyable.
The second song we’d like to talk to you about is The Queen of Air and Darkness, where it all comes together; it is a song sung by the three singers on this album and guided by the main piano player (Immanuel Carl Maria Vogt who does a superb job throughout the album). The singers who had proved themselves throughout this album to be excellent singers take up the challenge to sing together, which they do equally professionally. This song really ‘sparkles’ with joy from all the performers; one can feel they are very comfortable with each others’ company.
Overall the recordings seem to be made in close proximity of the microphones (or so one does suspect) which provides an audio-image to the listener in which he (or she) might feel to be in close proximity of the performers, as if they are performing in your living-room. The acoustics are fine, the quality of the recording is otherwise excellent, the instruments and voices are nicely separately audible and the words sung are very well understandable. This might not be an audiophile recording but it certainly is not a cheap rip-off you can buy in massive quantity with little to no quality in any convenient store; this recording is excellent and well worthy of your attention, and above all its price can’t be an issue.
This is but the top of a Lonely Mountain of what musical Silmarils this composer might shine in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and the transition of the music from the synthesized versions of his scores to these marvellous recordings prove Paul Corfield Godfrey to be a great composer worthy of a broadening of performances and recordings. So if you want a new music to descend on your Middle-earth or simply add something special to your classical collection, go run through the seven woods (beware of the Queen of Air and Darkness) to get your copy of this album, sing a Drinking song and run back through Western lands on Roads that go ever ever on and hide like Strider in your perfect audio-spot and listen to this recording, being Alive without breath and let The mystery begin.
Tony Haywood, Federation of Recorded Music Societies Bulletin.
If the name Paul Corfield Godfrey is not already familiar to you, turn to the back pages of this Bulletin and you will see he is the treasurer of the Federation, a post he has held for some years. That he is a prolific composer may well come as a surprise to some, but the booklet note tells us that he studied at various times with Alan Bush and David Wynne. He has an obvious passion for the works of Tolkien, and this disc is devoted to a variety of settings of Tolkien texts as well as solo works inspired by him. I can’t confess to being a Tolkien expert, or even a fan if I’m honest, but lovers of the English pastoral school will no doubt find things to enjoy here as most of the music is safely tonal and undemanding. The modality and folk-like character of the Tolkien songs Op.9 could easily be mistaken for a number of other more famous composers, though it never descends into pastiche, and the texts are set with a good deal of sensitivity. The longest work here is the Akallabêth, an extended rhapsody for solo piano that has its moments but perhaps needed greater virtuosic abandon that it gets from Connor Fogel to make a really convincing case. The vocal contributions are generally very good, although the soprano of Tara McSwiney shows some strain in higher registers. If you enjoy English song, this is worth exploring.
Paul Corfield Godfrey writes about this CD:
The favourable critical reception given to this disc has been most gratifying, not least that by Brian Wilson for MusicWeb International, who remarked of my songs that “at times these reminded me of Vaughan Williams’ settings of Housman’s poetry (On Wenlock Edge). I shouldn’t be surprised if, with continued listening to these very accomplished performances, well recorded, some of Godfrey’s music becomes as well-loved as the Vaughan Williams.” Chris Seeman on the Tolkien Music Website was perhaps more pictorially graphic: “In the annals of Tolkien-inspired music, Paul Corfield Godfrey is the proverbial oliphaunt* in the closet…But alas, Godfrey’s musical vision has gone largely unsung and unheard. Until now.”
And yet the recording of this CD, the first devoted entirely to my compositions, came about almost by chance. The producer for Prima Facie Records, Steve Plews, had recently released a disc of music by Welsh composer Mike Parkin, and the latter had suggested that Steve might be interested in undertaking a recording concentrating on works related to my massive tetralogy based on Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. The items finally assembled for the disc were not exclusively Tolkien settings, but all contained musical material associated in one way or another with the ‘epic scenes’.
The performers too were assembled by a series of lucky accidents. Connor Fogel had already expressed an interest in performing my Akallabêth, a piano piece of massive difficulty, and his concerts in Cardiff including phenomenally complicated works by Messiaen and Ferneyhough were already the subject of much excitement. At the same time Adam Jondelius had taken up some of my songs, and these were reviewed with enthusiasm by Gwyn Parry-Jones when they were included in a recital given at Daventry in 2016. With a number of colleagues associated with performances at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in earlier years, we managed to collect everybody together for two long sessions in a Hereford church with a marvellous Steinway grand piano on one day in November 2016.
The results have gratifyingly proved to be one of the label’s best sellers – no mean compliment in a catalogue that includes music by John McCabe, Alan Rawsthorne and Havergal Brian. It is hoped to follow it up in 2018 with a complete performance of The Fall of Gondolin, the final section of The Silmarillion, with a cast featuring singers from the Welsh National Opera, much of which has already been recorded.
*Oliphaunt is the name given to the large elephant in Tolkien's mythology featured in The Lord of the Rings. In the Peter Jackson films the animal is depicted as a massive monster, the ability of which to conceal itself in any context whatsoever must be the subject of the severest scepticism.