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Grace WILLIAMS (1906-1977) My Last Duchess
Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone),
Paula Fan (piano/harpsichord)
Rachel Kay Green (harp)
rec. Crowder Hall, University of Arizona, 2017 LORELT LNT140 [76.43]
Whilst it is quite true that Grace Williams’s music has not been strongly represented in concert programmes on a regular basis it’s also true that her three most significant orchestral works, ie. the Fantasia on Welsh Folk Songs (1940), the Sea Sketches (1944) and Penellion (1955) are well known and available on various Lyrita CDs and there is also a wonderful disc of her choral works on Chandos conducted by Richard Hickox. But there is also a significant number of arrangements for young voices and piano of songs from various parts of the world (I have done some with children) and there are songs in Welsh, using folk melodies as we find here.
In his book on Grace Williams published by the University of Wales Press (Composers in Wales Vol 4 -1980) Malcolm Boyd comments. “… it is in the solo songs, more than anything else, that her musical personality found its natural expression” and adds, “melody in the widest sense provided the initial impulse”. In the catalogue of her works the songs take up two-thirds of the list.
So with the exception of the longest song and one of her last compositions, the dramatic scena My Last Duchess (1974) which not only gives the CD its title but also begins it, the songs are presented pretty much, in chronological order, though with the pieces in Welsh coming more towards the end. The CD booklet offers all texts but only gives us translations (probably wisely) of the songs in the Welsh language.
If you feel you have heard some of these folk melodies before then you probably know Williams’s evergreen Fantasia on Welsh Folk Songs, which she composed in 1940 and still finds it way into the concert repertoire. Although some tunes like ‘Jim Crow’ are quite lively, several have quite gloomy texts. Talking of which the ‘Four Medieval Welsh Poems’ have serious texts and in many ways this piece is the standout work on the CD. The composer was, we read, very attached to it. Its ethereal scoring is deliberately archaic, that is for harpsichord and harp, which work together very strikingly. It was in 1962 that the BBC asked Williams if she would write ‘a song cycle in the penillion style’ and she found these recently printed texts. She had just completed her orchestral work ‘Penillion’ using the traditional Welsh technique of improvising vocal counterpoints to a traditional melody, which was originally played on the harp. The word itself means ‘Stanzas’. So a stanza structure is used, but the upper line is constantly varied.
Osian Ellis was a leading harpist in the years after the war, he worked with Britten who was also a friend and guide to Grace Williams. She composed the ‘Two 9th Century Welsh Poems’ for him to sing and play together (1962). There is a strong atmospheric sense of archaic yearning coupled with a more contemporary use of harmony.
The ‘Six Welsh Oxen Songs’ (1937) and the other folk songs written throughout the 30’s-, 40’s and 50’s are, despite Williams’s respect for Britten, treated quite differently from his methods of which she didn’t entirely approve. Whilst she does not abandon her own individuality she also never imposes herself in such a way as to transform the folk song into something only suitable for the Wigmore Hall.
Especially notable is ‘Watching the Wheat’. It takes a lovely, well-known melody and puts around it a halo of arpeggiated chords stretching across the piano. The song has four verses and a little interlude is placed between each, sometimes indicating a slight modulation. The arpeggiations vary for each verse, as do some harmonies. So, although the song is all of a piece there is constant change and diversity. Mostly these are accompanied by the piano but the harp features in ‘The Little Princess’ and ‘The Red Marsh’.
I’m sorry to say that I have mixed feeling however about Jeremy Huw Williams and I have taken a little time to adjust to his rather dramatic baritone. His background is in opera in which he has performed world-wide; having perfect Welsh diction he should be ideal for these songs and has spent much time presenting other Welsh music. But his vibrato is sometimes so wide that the performance becomes too heavy. How much more attractive he is when he is singing gently as in ‘The Little Princess’, rising to the sensitivity of the melody. Sometimes his strong, confident approach works well as in the other harp accompanied song ‘The Red Marsh’. But in ‘My Last Duchess’ and in several of the arrangements he is less pleasing. I also feel it something of a pity that Lorelt couldn’t have offered the listener more contrast across the twenty-eight tracks of the CD with another voice, particularly a female one; indeed some songs were meant for such a voice.
So I can’t be sure who will really want to buy this disc. If you like the idea of Grace Williams the folk song arranger then it might appeal but can you handle the operatic approach of Jeremy Huw Williams? If you are a collector of 20th Century British Art Songs will the thought of sixteen folk song arrangements appeal? I don’t know, but the release demonstrates once again the enterprise of Lorelt records in the promotion of music by female composers whose work has never had enough exposure.
Gary Higginson Track listing
1. My Last Duchess [11.36]
2-3 Two 9th Century Welsh Poems (2) [6.06]
4. Tarantella [2.43]
5. Thou Art the One Truth [3.48] 6. The Red Sun Rises [1.45]
7-10. Four Medieval Welsh Poems [13.05]
11-12. Two Welsh Folk Songs [2.40]
13-18. Six Welsh Oxen Songs [8.40]
19. Margoton va t’à l’eau (Belinda Went to the Well) [1.25]
20.. Morfa Rhuddlan (The Red Marsh): [2.25]
21.Hun Gwenllian (The Little Princess) [3.18]
22.. Bugeilio ’r Gwenith Gwyn (Watching the Wheat) [4.03]
23.. Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock) 2.48]
24. Y Bore Glas (The Early Dawn) [1.19]
22-25. Yr Eneth Ffein Ddu (The Lovely Dark Maid) [2.19] 26. Cariad Cyntaf (First Love) 2.58] 27 Hiraeth (Longing) [2.10] 28. Y Gwydd (The Loom) [3.26]