The chances are that even if you have never heard of Les Penning you may well have heard him – he recorded recorders and other instruments with the legendary Mike Oldfield in the 1970s, most notably on the excellent Ommadawn album in 1975. He also played rather more festively on Oldfield’s classic version of a traditional Christmas song, in the almost ubiquitous at this time of year In Dulci Jubilo single. Return to Penrhos is Penning’s latest impressive collaboration with talented multi-instrumentalist Robert Reed of Magenta.
Why would Les Penning be returning to Penrhos, and what is its significance?
Penrhos Court is in Herefordshire, near the Welsh border, and has been used by recording artists as a retreat to rehearse, including Led Zeppelin and Queen. Apparently Mike Oldfield met Les Penning playing at a restaurant there, and whilst he struggled to write Hergest Ridge, the follow up to Tubular Bells, Oldfield would join Penning and play in the restaurant in return for wine! With such a heritage it seems apt that Les Penning has now combined with Robert Reed, a self-confessed ardent follower of Oldfield, who inspired him as a young boy and very clearly influenced his Sanctuary albums, which he describes as ‘homages’ to Oldfield. Therefore, Return to Penhros is very much in the vein of the folk-infused musical path followed by the Tubular Bells legend and includes at least three traditional songs which Oldfield recorded for singles in his 1970s heyday, including Cuckoo Song, Argiers and In Dulci Jubilo.
Robert Reed has already proved himself to be very skilled at picking up the torch of his hero on his Sanctuary albums, here he is a perfect companion for Les Penning’s skilful and sensitive interpretations of these venerable songs, many of which originate from Tudor and Medieval times, such as Amaryllis, Fortune My Foe and Watkin’s Ale, amongst other lovely melodic pieces. Penning uses an impressive array of recorders, whistles and other woodwind – some of which I confess I had never heard of before! Reed shows great versatility on guitars, bass, keyboards, melodica, mandolin, bodhran and even banjo to paint delightful musical frameworks upon which Penning embroiders the tunes intricately and skilfully.
The most famous song on this album is undoubtedly In Dulci Jubilo, which was a big hit for Oldfield and seemingly never off Christmas playlists ever since. Intelligently, Penning and Reed do not attempt to emulate that classic and interpret it rather more gently and with more emotion. Penning’s rich voice introduces the piece with a story about a young monk in a German monastery in 1328 hearing in a vision a song sung by Angels. The unmistakable melody develops as the song progresses with Penning to the fore on his various instruments, and towards the end Reed cannot resist displaying his ‘inner Oldfield’ with a short guitar solo in his inimitable style. It’s a brave and inspired take on this classic medieval piece – a sort of a ‘cover of a cover’ as Oldfield’s shadow is clear for all to hear, but it also successfully carves out its own distinctive course.
Whilst the material previously touched on by Oldfield may attract the most attention, the more interesting and beguiling parts of the album are the original three parts of Return to Penrhos, written by Penning, which bookend the album and divide it at the midway point. Return to Penrhos, Part One features Penning’s deep spoken tones and a delicate recorder, and it feels as if we are somehow falling back in time. The following medieval songs in the album could almost have been the songs played by a minstrel at a feast at Penrhos Court. Return to Penrhos, Part Two beautifully recapitulates the opening themes before we return to the rather more joyous songs in the second half, perhaps as Watkin’s Ale begins to have an effect on those at the feast?
Return to Penrhos, Part Three concludes the album with a lengthy piece imbued with pastoral, rural sounds and a softly atmospheric, almost melancholic piece, as if the feast goers are wending their way home after the fun of the evening? Some delicately picked acoustic guitar from Rob Reed seemingly draws the piece to a close and we are left hearing the noises of the countryside… until Penning fades back in intoning the words of Auld Lang Syne over the tune of that essential part of any New Year’s Eve.
In the usual value of a Rob Reed release there is an additional DVD which includes some promo videos, including The Floral Dance… and the Dr Who Theme, both done in a very light-hearted, comical manner (ahem!). Live material from the Acapela Studios shows and a performance at a Mike Oldfield convention showcases the great musical skill of Penning and Reed (along with most of the Magenta band) in concert, clearly enchanting the crowds.
This is an album that soothes the soul. It’s not really a ‘rock’ album, but that did not stop Oldfield in the ’70s. It’s that time of the year when the nights are long and the weather is cold and wet. Come in, leave your worries and cynicism at the door and take off your shoes – find a comfortable chair, put a log on the fire (or just turn the heating up!), have a nice cup of tea or perhaps a more alcoholic tipple and just sit back and enjoy these tunes. It’s not totally festive but it’s definitely a seasonal album for the winter. Penning and Reed have given us a lovely release, redolent with wistful charm and delightful tunes, played with skill, feeling and most assuredly a twinkle in the eye.
Sometimes life and music just needs to be that simple and enjoyable.
01. Return to Penrhos, Part One (3:38)
02. Amaryllis (2:56)
03. La Bouree (Cuckoo Song) (3:29)
04. Fortune My Foe (4:09)
05. La Volta (4:15)
06. The Fall of the Leaf (3:09)
07. Return to Penrhos, Part Two / Mr Herbert’s Welcome Home (2:55)
08. Watkin’s Ale (3:02)
09. Argiers (4:23)
10. Ronde (Wreckorder Wrondo) (2:12)
11. In Dulci Jubilo (3:23)
12. Kemp’s Jig (2:10)
13. Return to Penrhos, Part Three / Teaching Swans to Sing (11:52)
Total Time – 49:56
Les Penning – Sopranino, Renaissance Soprano & Treble Recorders, Alto Crumhorn, Zither (Bowed Psaltery), Garklein, Ocarina, Tenor Gemshorn, Low Whistles (F and D), Spoken Word, Bells
Robert Reed – Electric, Acoustic & Nylon Guitars, Bass, Keyboards, Melodica, Mandolin, Bodhrán, Banjo, Vocals
Record Label: Tigermoth Records
Date of Release: 14th October 2019