THE album Echoes blends the sacred with the popular, a style rooted in medieval Welsh bards’ rallying mix of music and poetry. Founded in 1947 as a community male-voice choir, the Fron Choir’s sound is also heir to the rousing Nonconformist hymns, reverberating through the chapels built for the mushrooming colliery workforce of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Netflix seies The Crown’s poignant Aberfan episode, in which “Jesu, Lover of my soul”, sung by the villagers mourning their buried children, weaves through the title music, shows how this tradition can appeal to a global audience.
Moving seamlessly between West Side Story and Les Misérables to classics of Welsh Nonconformity, O Iesu Mawr and Llanfair, Echoes’ track list and choral treatment reinforces the music’s commonality. Spiritual aspects of the big numbers’ lyrics shine through: in “Maria” — “Say it soft, and it’s almost like praying” — and “Hear my prayer” from Les Misérables.
Spasiniye Sodelal, “Salvation is created”, written in 1912, and performed unaccompanied, is one of the strongest works, capturing the depth and longing of the hymn that the Russian composer Pavel Tchesnokov (1877-1944) never heard performed in his lifetime. The contemporary composer Eric Whiteacre’s Seal Lullaby, based on Kipling’s story “The White Seal”, also gives full rein to the Fron’s strengths. Accompanied only by piano, there’s an addictive quality to the melody, magnetically leading from sequence to sequence.
Produced by Jon Cohen, who has worked with Katherine Jenkins and the Military Wives Choir, the album embraces a full pop, crossover sound, at times feeling closer to McFly than the Monteverdi Choir. The Chartist anthem O Iesu Mawr, composed by the 18th-century Welsh Methodist leader David Charles, starts off as a slow and steady plea, quietly accompanied by piano and clarinet, but quickly swells to full instrumentation, complete with percussion. For me, the Fron’s repertoire is most powerful when it is pared down.
The big-band sound is used more sparingly in the final track, Tydi A Roddaist, “Thou Gavest”, with silence separating Thomas Rowland Hughes’s Welsh poem, set to music by Arwel Hughes in 1938, from the Closing Prayer sung in English. The pause gives the feeling of a live performance, and conversation between the strings and the soaring keyboards at the end pulls us into the emotion. Tydi A Roddaist featured in How Green Was My Valley, wartime Hollywood’s tribute to the struggles of the South Wales Valleys. Tinseltown’s big-band sound is also at large in Albert Mallotte’s 1935 arrangement of the Lord’s Prayer, with crashing orchestration from “thine is the kingdom . . .” onwards. Mallotte also composed for Disney, including “The Ugly Duckling”.
Llanfair, familiar to English ears as a setting for Wesley’s “Hail the day that sees him rise”, was composed in 1817 by the blind Anglesey basketmaker Robert Williams. It builds up skilfully to a full final section: not speaking Welsh is no barrier to being transported by the hymn.
For all Welsh Male voice choirs’ 1970s ruffled-dress-shirt associations, Echoes shows that a sound born from industrialisation can successfully evolve into the post-industrial world.
The Fron Male Voice Choir’s album Echoes is released on Silva Classics.