Michael J. Lewis, director,
The Romantic Splendour of Wales
(Gogoniant Rhamantaidd Cymru)

(Pen Dinas, 1997)

It is hard, sometimes, to know precisely how to review certain discs. Reviews are tricky beasts anyway, attempting as they do to fuse objective analyses with subjective tastes. Still, it is useful for me to turn my hand to The Romantic Splendour of Wales precisely because it is not the sort of disc I would seek out as personally preferred music. It is with that vaguely ominous caveat that I offer the following impressions of Michael J. Lewis' work (and it must needs be noted herewith that Lewis is credited as the arranger, producer and director of this opus).

By way of preface to more specific comments, I must further confess that I have a strong bias when it comes to the presentation of folk music (especially traditional folk music), and that is that, whatever other sin may be committed in the presentation of such music, thou shalt not render said music bloodless, lifeless, drained of passion. It is for this reason that I have an aversion to what I have come to call the "Robert Shawing" of traditional music, which is to say, music that is delivered in perfect, measured tones, correct in every jot and tittle as to the notes on the page, but ultimately the stuff of the recital hall or the music competition. I admit that this aversion probably dates from too many years in band competitions myself, but stand resolved that the worst crime one can commit against a body of traditional music is to drain it of its emotional context, of its very (occasionally blue-eyed) soul.

Those who've stayed with me this far may be surprised to discover that there are a number of things I really like about this disc, but there are. For convenience, when I talk about those excursions that detour into the pitfall described above, the notation "RSS" (Robert Shaw Syndrome) will be your warning signal.

The disc opens with "Ships of Caernarvon," a rousing piece which suggests to me that Lewis spent at least part of his formative musical years with one ear trained on the more orchestral work of Ennio Morricone (now this may sound like a shot, but it isn't; I dearly love Morricone's work), right down to the female choral figures towards the end of the piece. "Child's Prayer" and "The Blue Stallion," which follow, are earnestly rendered, but suffer from the dread RSS. A lament, "Pretty Lisa," is next, and it starts off well, the single a cappella voice floating along, only to be buried under the instrumental bridges. Similarly, a fine tenor a cappella in "Counting the Goats" is undone by RSS. After the "Welsh Clog Dance" (a vaguely Riverdance-meets-flamenco offering), there is a strong acoustic guitar offering in "David of the White Rock" and a fine bit of harping in "The Golden Harp" (as one might expect).

After several more bouts of RSS and a renewed flirtation with Morricone (in "By the Sea Shore") comes my favorite piece on the disc, a strong guitar offering in "Over the Stone." "On the Road to Rhymni" emerges as a fine bit of female a cappella work, followed by "Reflections," which showcases some exceptional harp ensemble playing. Near the end of the work, there is a sweet offering in "A Sunny, Spring Sunday Morning in Wales," which is apparently just what the title says, a recording of birds and church bells. The closing piece is "There Will We Stand Amazed," which bookends nicely with the piece that opens the disc.

A word about the performers on this disc: vocalists and instrumentalists all are accomplished and give fine performances. I will hazard a guess that Lewis was trying to accomplish exactly what I heard, and that my comparing his work to Robert Shaw's might well be taken by him as a compliment. If so, so much the better, and for the listener that likes the Shaw approach to this sort of music, I cannot recommend this disc highly enough. What may be more surprising is my suggestion that those who are inclined away from such a musical approach can still find things that delight on The Romantic Splendour of Wales. Hey, it's a crazy world out there, my friends. One never knows where enlightenment might rear its ugly head....

[ by Gilbert Head ]
Rambles: 25 June 2001