William Williams is a somewhat obscure figure, who
flourished in Britain around the end of the seventeenth century. His
name, plus the fact that he dedicated his opus 1 to James, Earl of Anglesey,
suggests inescapably that he was of Welsh origin, despite spending his
working life in London.
This recording is a German production, so that the
author of the booklet notes, Michael Schneider, can perhaps be forgiven
for not spotting this. It does however highlight one of the potential
pitfalls (pratfalls?) of learned academic research – failing to register
the blindingly obvious because of lack of ‘local knowledge’.
Not to worry; leaving those relatively trivial considerations
on one side, this is a delightful disc. The music is a revelation, coming
as it does from a composer of, roughly, Purcell’s era. It is sophisticated,
technically adroit music, with not only great artistic control and purpose,
but also wit and elegance. The writing for the violins is highly idiomatic,
that for the recorders even more so, bringing out their bird-like qualities.
Incidentally, having maligned Michael Schneider (who also plays recorder
on the disc), I now want to thank him for a suggestion that I have never
come across before. There has always been a mystery surrounding the
origins of the word ‘recorder’ to describe what the Germans call ‘Blockflőte’,
the French ‘flűte à bec’, etc. Schneider links the
name to the use of the instrument during the 17th and 18th
century to teach tunes to caged birds, a popular pursuit at the time.
I knew ‘Mad King George’ used to do this, but hadn’t realised it was
such a widespread activity; an interesting theory.
The duetting of the two recorders is a pleasurable
feature of the first sonata recorded here, no. 6 in F, which is actually
subtitled ‘In imitation of birds’. The playing of Michael Schneider
and Sabine Ambos is quite superb, with a wholly effective use of ornamentation,
including fingered vibrato. The concluding movement is a lively and
engaging gigue-like Allegro.
Three minor key sonatas follow; Sabine Bauer, the keyboard
player, chooses to move to the darker sound of the positive organ for
these, which is most effective. Each sonata ends with a short but inventive
Bauer returns to the harpsichord for the last two sonatas;
no.2 has a finale which last just 38 seconds in this version, complete
with hectically scurrying scales in the cello and harpsichord, while
no. 3 in A has an unusually expressive Adagio, with unexpected
plunges from major to minor. Add to this the Purcellian false relations
and you have an unusually rich harmonic language for the period. This
is really fine music.
The programme ends with two works not belonging to
op.1. The Duet in F for 2 recorders has no continuo, while the Sonata
in d minor was described by the composer as "A Sonata for a Single
Flute, commposed (sic) by Mr.Williams".
The playing of the whole ensemble is outstanding –
completely stylish without being cramped or dull. The recording too
is outstanding in that it is natural and unobtrusive. A very fine issue.