Brian Davies: Pianist described as 'the Rachmaninov of the Rhondda'
Tuesday 05 July 2011
The accompanist and arranger Bryan Davies was one of the most brilliant musicians to come out of south Wales. A concert pianist in his own right – the soprano Rebecca Evans dubbed him "the Rachmaninov of the Rhondda" – he was also an exceptional technical exponent of the art of accompanying. It was not only the most celebrated vocalists of the opera house and concert hall who could testify to his consummate musical skills, he was also a great enabler: he taught young musicians how they might become better than they had dreamt of being.
Bryan was born in Ferndale, Rhondda, in 1934. He was a product of the south Wales coalfield, both in his short, portly physique, and in his character. Born in the 1930s to a coalminer and his wife, he inherited the values born of the trials and tribulations of the Depression. The militancy and political intransigence of the 1920s had led the townships of the upper Rhondda Fach to be known as "Little Moscows" and Bryan Davies was always politically and artistically committed to the community which had given him so much.
He played on BBC Radio's Children's Hour at the age of 14. After Ferndale Grammar School he studied at Cardiff Castle School of Music; then, deciding on a teaching career, he moved to Yorkshire to train at Bretton Hall. After two years in London he returned to the Rhondda to teach music and English in local schools until he retired in 1988. During this time he was travelling to study the piano privately with Vaughan Williams, Khachaturian, Vlado Perlemuter and Aaron Copland. Few homes in the Rhondda boast a grand piano, but a baby Bechstein was an essential item of furniture in the terraced house he shared with his wife in Ferndale. The bay window had to be dismantled to get it in.
He was the least egotistical, the most generous and modest of men. On his retirement from teaching in 1988, he was appointed by the RWCMD as a vocal and instrumental coach, where he accompanied master-classes by such talents as Brigitte Fassbaender, Dennis O'Neill, Raphael Wallfisch and Wen Zhou Li. When in 2000 the College conferred on him an honorary fellowship he was given the longest ovation the RWMCD has ever known. A year later he was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians. In 2006 he received the Chancellor's Medal of the University of Glamorgan, one of what he called "several long-service gongs from the music community which, if worn, would make me rival Herman Goering at his most flamboyant."
His many arrangements were favourably received on both sides of the Atlantic, and as befitted a musician from the Rhondda, he made a notable contribution to the repertoire of the Welsh male choir, most of whom he accompanied at one time or another, and he enjoyed particularly close links with the Pendyrus choir of Tylorstown and Côr Meibion De Cymru (the South Wales Male Choir), whose only accompanists have ever been Bryan Davies and his daughter Siân.
Not for Bryan the showy leather case; he carried his music in a paper bag. When it was suggested he ought to have something more in keeping with his standing, he upgraded it to an M&S carrier bag. Apparently unworldly, he had total confidence in his knowledge and mastery of the keyboard, and scores of singers had reason to be grateful for his support and, when required, unobtrusive rescue. Those carrier bags contained the music to accompany at one time or another all Wales's leading artists, from Gwyneth Jones to Bryn Terfel; in 2004 and 2005 he accompanied the latter at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
He had a Pickwickian humour that was irrepressible to the end. In his final days at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, he was called from New York by Bryn Terfel, who sang down the phone. As Terfel's rich bass-baritone rang around the ward, the man in the next bed said, "That boy's got a voice. He should go on X Factor." Bryan was unable to speak but fully conscious; his twinkling eyes danced with delight.
Bryan Arthur Davies, musician: born Ferndale, Rhondda 14 May 1934; married 1959 Eirwen Jenkins (one son, two daughters); died Llantrisant, Rhondda Cynon Taf 2 April 2011.
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