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Grace WILLIAMS (1906-1977)
Balladsa (1968) [17’12]. Fairest of Starsb (1973) [14’09]. Symphony No. 2c (1956) [37’51].
bJanet Price (soprano); acBBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley; bLondon Symphony Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves.
Rec. acBBC Studio One, Llandaff on March 24th-25th, 1979 (originally released on BBC Artium REGL381); bAbbey Road Studios, London, on November 22nd, 1973 (originally HMV ASD3006). ADD
LYRITA RECORDED EDITION SRCD327 [73.23]

 

The cruel neglect of the music of Welsh composer Grace Williams, a pupil of Egon Wellesz and Ralph Vaughan Williams, seems inexplicable in the light of the works on this disc. There is an impassioned slant to her music, partly through the dual influences of Mahler and Shostakovich. Not only did she study with Wellesz (in Vienna) and RVW (at the RCM in London), but she was on good terms with Britten, even refusing an offer to become his assistant at one point.

The four Ballads date from 1968 and were written for the National Eisteddfod (held in her home town of Barry). There is an irresistible warmth to the first (Allegro moderato, alla canzone) that contrasts with the spikier ‘Alla marcia solenne’ (definite shades of Shostakovich here, although the eerie high notes speak to me also of Smetana’s impression of tinnitis in his First String Quartet). Perhaps it is the stillness of the third that impresses the most, with its interruptive, curiously Welsh-sounding fanfares. These interruptions reach a height just over three minutes in; immediately after this is a short horn solo of the most melting beauty which seems to try to make amends. The finale, Allegro furioso, is very, very busy but curiously never over-laden.

The contrast of the delicate string halos that open Fairest of Stars could hardly be greater. The text is taken from Book Five of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The work was actually composed specifically for this recording (how often does this sort of thing happen these days?) and what a terrific discovery it is. The winding, swooping vocal line oozes freedom. Declamation from the soloist, Janet Price, is exemplary (text is included in the booklet). This is 14 minutes of pure emotive outpouring. It grips from first to last – as the latest of the works on this disc (just four years before Williams died), it speaks of a wealth of experience. There is a real power to the harmonic palette (listen to the build-up to the voice’s climactic entrance on the words, ‘Join voices, all ye living souls’) as well as to her registral sense (how the voice glows at the poem’s final words, ‘as now light dispels the dark’).

The Second Symphony begins ‘Allegro marziale’ (indeed the first sound one hears is a side-drum). The melodic lines are jagged, but just how serious of intent this music is appears to be questionable. Actually, the answer comes in the intense working-out of thematic material, all of which puts the English-pastoral element of the Andante sostenuto in high relief (with its yearning opening oboe solo played incredibly expressively on this recording). This is an extended (11’58), heart-felt meditation.

The Scherzo is playful in the extreme, although not without undercurrents culled from the Allegro marziale. Williams closes her Symphony with a Largo. As annotator Malcolm Boyd points out, there is Mahlerian poignancy present in the opening bars. I heard a Nielsen influence later on, but perhaps that just stems from the sonic signpost of an active side-drum part.

From the composer’s letters, it would appear that the symphony’s gestation was far from smooth. Perhaps that accounts for my only real criticism of this piece, that the ending is perfunctory, a token gesture in lieu of real closure as if she did not quite know how to bring things to a halt. A great pity, as the symphony taken as a whole is worthy of the greatest respect.

The BBC Welsh SO play superbly – they must have been allocated a huge amount of rehearsal time to play with such confidence. Having Vernon Handley (so, to get on the bandwagon, just when can I write ‘Sir Vernon’?) at the helm, with his limitless enthusiasm for this music and his keen ear for line, surely only adds to the value of this release.

Do explore this music. Before handling this disc I personally had not heard any of Grace Williams’ music, so all three pieces came as something of a revelation. If her music is not on the same exalted level as that of John Foulds, it remains compelling Who out of the currently active record companies will now take up her cause?.

Colin Clarke

see also

GRACE WILLIAMS Welsh Composer by Pamela Blevins

GRACE WILLIAMS by David C. F. Wright

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