Morfydd Owen: Portrait of a Lost Icon
★★★★★ BBC Music Magazine
Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano) and Brian Ellsbury (piano) perform the music of Morfydd Owen (1891-1918). Including songs Gweddi y Pechadur, and To Our Lady of Sorrows as well the first recordings of some of her piano works. As heard on BBC World Service, BBC Radio 3, Radio Cymru, and S4C.
★★★★★ BBC Music Magazine (February 2017)
Morfydd Owen was born om the Welsh valleys in 1891. Like many of her peers she sang and played piano, but it was her precocious talent as a composer – and her beauty – that dazzled audiences in London. Sadly, having met and married within six weeks Freud’s biographer, Ernest Jones, her once-prolific output tapered off, and she died in mysterious circumstances following surgery in 1918, aged just 26.
Inevitably, Owen’s tale is ripe for romantic fantasy as well as regret. But leaving aside the odd tautology of its title, on the basis of this sensitively recorded disc from Tŷ Cerdd, a recent resurgence of interest in her music proves justified. Pianist and researcher/editor Brian Ellsbury joins forces with Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas to offer a poignant collection of songs and piano pieces spanning Owen’s tantalisingly promising career.
Many of the works have only recently been unearthed, and the E minor Piano Sonata, for example, is patchy juvenilia. However its wild contrasts are honed to quixotic perfection in the songs, which reveal Owen’s expertise in subtly chromatic, sometimes Slavic-tinged vocal miniatures. Best known, but not necessarily most affecting, is the sole Welsh-language example, Gweddi y Pechadur (The Sinner’s Prayer). If Manahan Thomas’s voice is occasionally tremulous, her delivery is passionate, and the combination serves to underscore the paradoxical strength and fragility of Owen herself.
BBC Music Magazine February 2017
USA Welsh magazine, Ninnau (March 2017)
This newly released and eagerly awaited CD includes 10 world premiere recordings, 6 piano pieces and 4 songs. In her writing for piano, Morfydd was obviously processing various contemporary influences into her own style. Selections such as ‘Rhapsody in Csharp minor’, ‘Tal y Llyn’, ‘Little Eric’ and ‘Minuet and Trio’ do tend to be in the prevailing style of sentimental Edwardian parlour music, but other pieces show a more adventurous spirit at work. The influence of Rachmaninov may be distinctly heard in the Allegro Vivace movement of the Piano Sonata (1910) and possibly that of Scriabin in ‘Glantaf’ (1914), which explores bi-tonal harmony. Brian Ellsbury considers ‘Maida Vale’ (1912) to be similar in style to the music of Erik Satie. The early Piano Sonata (1910), written while Morfydd was a student in Cardiff, remains unpublished; but she re-cycled its first 25 measures into the Prelude in E minor ‘Beti Bwt’ which was published in 1924.
It is in her songs that her own musical personality emerges most strongly - from the ineffable tenderness of ‘Mother’s Lullaby’ (1914) to the deeply felt ‘God made a Lovely Garden’ (1917) and the highly chromatic ‘Speedwell’ (1918), recorded here for the first time, as are ‘Violets’ (undated), Daisy’s Song (1911) and ‘The Land of Hushabye’ (1916), all of them lovely. ‘To our lady of Sorrows’ (1912) and ‘Tristesse’ (1915) a French-language setting of poetry by Alfred de Musset, have an almost unbearable poignancy. Even an apparently simple setting, like ‘The Lamb’ (1914) has a quite extraordinary depth, with complex and subtle chromatic harmonies that seem to be a musical language quite her own. Of course, her most famous piece is here, ‘Gweddi y Pechadur’ (1913). The insertion of the ungrammatical article into the title is Morfydd’s own, and may have been intended to make her setting of this heartfelt sinner’s prayer a particularly personal one. Even in an age less God-fearing than the one it came from, this piece retains its power to be deeply affecting. It’s clear that Morfydd’s genius is in word-setting, whether in Welsh or in English, and that her untimely death at the age of 26, in circumstances not yet fully explained, is an enduring tragedy. Her orchestral music, yet to be committed to disc, is also powerfully idiomatic.
These two fine artists had extensive experience of performing Morfydd’s music together before they went into the studio at Tŷ Cerdd to make these recordings. They understand it, and do it supremely well. I can only recommend this CD wholeheartedly to all of you who are reading this review. The CD can be ordered directly from
Keith Davies Jones