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Grace WILLIAMS (1906-77)
My last Duchess (1974) [11.36]
Two Ninth Century Welsh poems (1964) [6.10]
Tarantella (1930) [2.43]
Thou art the One Truth (1935, revised 1950) [3.48]
The Red Sun rises (1948) [1.45]
Four mediaeval Welsh poems (1963) [13.05]
Two Welsh folksongs [2.40]
Six Welsh oxen songs (1937) [8.40]
Folksong arrangements (1946-54) [26:11]
Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone)
Paula Fan (piano and harpsichord)
Rachel Kay Green (harp)
rec. Crowder Hall, Tucson, USA, 2017 LORELT LNT140 [76.43]
This appears to be the first time that any of the songs of Grace Williams with piano accompaniment have appeared on CD, which seems extraordinary when the sheer volume of her output in the field is considered. On the other hand the composer showed a remarkable willingness during her own lifetime to suppress performances of works which she regarded as falling below her own high standards – her First Symphony, her Violin Concerto and Sinfonia concertante all fell beneath her censorious axe, although all have subsequently been successfully revived. The only non-choral vocal works which have been recorded are her Gerard Manley Hopkins cycle (with string sextet) and the orchestral scena Fairest of stars – and only the latter survives in the current catalogue, in a recording made as long ago as 1974.
Be that as it may, we should certainly welcome the availability of this music on disc. There are two works here of considerable importance: the title track My last duchess and the settings of Four mediaeval Welsh poems. The Browning setting is very close indeed to an operatic scena; it was written right at the end of Grace Williams’s composing career, a mere three years before her death, and actually includes stage directions for the baritone soloist as if it were to be presented in a dramatic fashion. Indeed, one might even welcome an orchestral version of the score in places where the piano part sounds more like a transcription than an accompaniment originally conceived for the instrument. Browning’s poem is a dramatic monologue where the protagonist relates the story of his wife with much bitterness interspersed with casual conversation to a sympathetic hearer. Unfortunately the recording acoustic here is far from ideal; the voice is very closely observed, and the piano part similarly lacks any sense of resonance to flesh out the textures. It is no surprise to discover that Williams had originally indeed intended the subject for operatic treatment, although it is hard to discern how this might have been achieved; but as it stands, the work comes across as a worthy attempt rather than a finished product.
That cannot be said of the Four mediaeval Welsh poems, scored for the unusual combination of voice with both harp and harpsichord – a combination which the booklet notes by Graeme Cotterill suggests was inspired by “a conscious nod to archaism.” Actually the writing for both instruments is beautifully characteristic and atmospheric, with the two combining to bring a sense of drama to the settings as well as reflecting the mood of the texts drawn from Thomas Parry’s 1962 Oxford Book of Welsh verse. It comes as no surprise to learn that Grace Williams herself “reserved special affection for this work as one of her most stylistically representative”. The Two Ninth Century Welsh poems were, like the mediaeval cycle, written for Ossian Ellis, but this time with harp accompaniment only. They are more straightforward settings, as befits the verses chosen. And all these settings are thankfully given more room to breathe by the recorded sound, more distanced and with a halo of resonance, although the sound still remains somewhat too dry to be ideal.
The three other settings on this disc which do not have their origins in Welsh folksong are a setting of Hilaire Belloc’s Tarantella, not as effective as the choral version which Williams later wrote for inclusion in her cycle The Dancers (recorded by Richard Hickox on the same disc as the Hopkins settings, and surely overdue for a Chandos reissue); the lapidary The red sun rises, drawn from a score written for Henry Treece’s The Dark Island; and, best of all, Thou art the one truth, a setting of Dhan Gopal Mukerji built on a tolling bass line and originally written with orchestral accompaniment (one would welcome the chance to hear this version). There is plenty of body to the piano sound here, and Jeremy Huw Williams relishes lines such as “Thou art the Ultimate Silence”.
The remainder of the works here are arrangements of Welsh folksongs, with accompaniments distributed between harp and piano on an apparently random basis although it is clear that many could function equally well with either. We are told that Williams held earlier arrangements of this material from Cecil Sharp and his contemporaries in high disdain, describing them as “dull as dishwater”, but at the same time she was anxious to avoid Britten’s sometimes elaborately style of arrangements as seen in his treatment of The ash grove which she described as “playing cat and mouse” with the natural flow of the melody. Of these arrangements, that of Dafydd y garreg wen (David of the White Rock) comes across with particularly convincing manners; the translation of the text given in the booklet is not that usually encountered, but is thankfully less conventionally romantic even if hardly more literally accurate. The Six Welsh oxen songs are presented here as a group, but some of them are very similar to each other (with the persistently repeated refrain Hoo on hoo!) and they might have been separated to advantage – although the third (a rhyme from Margam) is given a very beautiful treatment indeed. These were among the very earliest of Grace Williams’s works to be published; the dates of some of the other treatments are obscure, although all were apparently written during the period between 1946 and 1954. There is an element of Britten, too, in Jeremy Huw Williams’s singing here: not so much echoes of Peter Pears as of another Aldeburgh stalwart Thomas Hamsley. And again one would welcome a sense of more air around the voice. I should also perhaps observe that the setting of Hiraeth (track 27) is quite distinct from the composer’s solo harp piece of the same title written in 1951.
The physical presentation of this CD falls down on a number of minor points. The list of tracks, and the provided texts and translations, at no point indicate who actually wrote the words; for this rather essential information recourse must be made to the body of the booklet notes themselves. None of the tracks indicate, either, who exactly is providing the accompaniment at any particular point, and on what instruments. The pause between tracks 10 and 11 (at the end of the Four mediaeval Welsh poems) is ridiculously short. Although it seems that the English translations from the Welsh were designed for singing purposes (again, no translator is credited) the texts themselves do not even provide the opening lines of the Welsh verses to enable the listener to orientate themselves. Oddly enough, the dates of birth and death of the composer are nowhere stated. Nor are there any notes on the dates of composition of many of the folksong arrangements (if indeed these are known). None of these are absolutely vital, of course, but the omissions could so easily have been rectified; I have attempted to do so in the header to this review.
Nonetheless those who love the music of Grace Williams, or who have fallen for the considerable merits of orchestral pieces such as the Penillion or the ubiquitous Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Songs (they will be delighted to find a vocal setting of Jim Cro on this disc), will welcome the opportunity to investigate a field of her art which has been unfairly neglected. Jeremy Huw Williams, despite not being best served by the dry acoustic, relishes the words both in English and in Welsh (along with a solitary venture into French); and the two American accompanists enter fully into the Cambrian sphere. There remain a whole sheaf of Williams songs unexplored here, including settings of Edward Thomas, Scott, Shakespeare, Tennyson and John Gay, to mention only those written in the 1960s; and earlier treatments of John Masefield, Siegfried Sassoon and Vita Sackville-West with orchestral or chamber accompaniment which might well repay investigation. Might we hope for a second volume in due course?