Grace WILLIAMS (1906-1977)
Violin Sonata (1930, rev. 1938) [18:03]
Sextet for Oboe, Trumpet, Violin, Viola, Violoncello and Pianoforte (1931) [31:37]
Suite for Nine Instruments (1934) [13:39]
Romanza for Oboe and Clarinet (1940s) [2:14]
Sarabande for Piano Left Hand (1958) [4:03]
Rondo for Dancing for Two Violins and Optional ’Cello (1970) [1:55]
London Chamber Ensemble/Madeleine Mitchell (violin)
rec. 2018, Tŷ Cerdd Studio, Millennium Centre, Cardiff; University of London Performance Space, London
NAXOS 8.571380 [71:45]
Grace Williams was born and died in Barry, in the Vale of Glamorgan, and has long been recognised as Wales’s leading female composer, a reputation largely garnered through her vocal and orchestral music, of which her Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes (1940), while not especially typical of the composer’s work, is arguably her most popular work. Even though, some nine years later, she was the first British woman to score a feature film – director Jill Craigie’s only non-documentary film, Blue Scar, intended to raise questions about nationalising the coal industry – the rest of Williams’s output in other genres remained undiscovered for many years.
Part of the problem was the composer’s almost morbid obsession with self-criticism, which caused her to scribble ‘not worth performing’ on several of her chamber-music manuscripts when she revisited them at the age of 51. Had leading UK violinist and chamber-music player Madeleine Mitchell taken such scribblings at face value some two years ago, when she was in Tŷ Cerdd, the Welsh Music Information Centre in Cardiff, researching violin music by Welsh composers, and came across Williams’s Violin Sonata, this newly-released CD may well never have seen the light of day. Indeed, fired by this initial discovery, Mitchell went on to find more unpublished chamber works, which are heard here for the first time, and really do much to redress the balance with their undoubted quality, originality, and charm.
Williams won the Morfydd Owen scholarship to Cardiff University, and subsequently studied at the Royal College of Music (RCM) with Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob. It is certainly possible to detect the influences of these two latter composers in some of the music on the CD. Williams was only able to benefit in kind from the scholarship provided in the name of fellow Welsh female composer Morfydd Owen, born some seventeen years earlier, and also a Cardiff alumna, because of Owen’s tragic and untimely death at the age of 26, but there is also something of the essence of the older composer’s style here, too.
The CD opens, not unexpectedly, with the Violin Sonata itself, a three-movement work in conventional fast-slow-fast format. From its very opening, there is a particularly strong rhythmic drive to the writing, which is clearly implicit in the tempo indication (Allegro molto ritmico). After studying at the RCM, where she was profoundly influenced especially by her namesake, Grace Williams was awarded a travelling scholarship to Vienna to study for a year with Egon Wellesz, by whom she was not only inspired, but through whom she was also able to attend opera performances almost daily, and where the works of Strauss, Wagner, and Berg’s Wozzeck were among her favourites. This European infusion of Bartók, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich, for example, is evident here in the first movement, and especially the prevalence of fourths in the harmony, whereas the ‘Andante sostenuto’ that follows, looks back more to the folk-song style of Vaughan Williams. The finale, marked Allegro scherzando, takes its lead very much from this designation, though admittedly more so in the rhythmic, than humorous connotation of the scherzo form. Interspersed with some more lyrical moments, this is nonetheless an exciting conclusion to this well-written opening gambit.
Returning for a moment to the composer’s Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes, it is quite evident, from its prominence in that score, that Williams is very much a fan of the trumpet. A Trumpet Concerto, and Movement for Trumpet and Chamber Orchestra further attest to this, but it’s still pretty rare in chamber music, save for Saint-Saëns’s Septet. Williams’s Sextet which is next on the CD, is the most substantial work recorded, its four movements lasting over half an hour. The first movement presents an Allegro framed by a slow introduction, followed by an extended Scherzo and Trio. The slow movement has the air of a slow march, while the lively and unyielding finale is a dance-like tarantella. Throughout the work Williams shows great skill in ensuring that all instruments have their moments(s) of glory and brings her previous orchestration skills to the table in ensuring good balance between the wind instruments in particular, and by not letting the trumpet overpower.
The Suite for Nine Instruments, written three years after the Sextet, also includes the trumpet, and in that short space of time, Williams’s harmonic language has certainly taken a step forward, with its quasi-Stravinskian exotic flavour and use of ostinati from the outset. This is indeed exciting writing of almost symphonic proportions, while still well within the bounds of chamber music. From Stravinsky, the scene shifts to the distinctive timbre of Bartókian ‘night music’ for the highly-evocative Andantino slow movement, before the finale (Allegro con brio) picks up where the first movement left off. The woodwind writing is especially exciting, with little snippets here and there that are strangely reminiscent of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, as the movement gains in momentum towards its close.
Romanza for Oboe and Clarinet was written just after the Nursery Tunes’ Fantasia, and reverts to a much less astringent style than the Suite. The composer herself wrote ‘pastiche! but nice GW’ on the score, which might indeed be true, even though the composer’s distinctive harmonic sense still lurks in the background of this wistful miniature. On the CD, the clarinet part is played on the bass instrument, as the original score goes below the range of its regular orchestral counterpart.
The Sarabande for Piano Left Hand opens in a brooding manner, where some of the thematic material, rhythms, and chord juxtapositions almost seem to suggest a Spanish, or Moorish location.
The CD closes with the rather unusually-titled Rondo for Dancing for Two Violins and Optional ’Cello, the most recent, and, at the same time, shortest piece recorded. It’s a cheerful little Baroque-like Rondo, intended as part of an album of violin teaching pieces, and published by the Guild for Welsh Music in 1972. It comes here as a pleasant-enough stocking-filler, and an effective little encore to round everything off.
The playing from the London Chamber Ensemble (all members are identified individually on the CD) is absolutely first-rate throughout, and the recording is most faithfully balanced to capture the feel of a live performance, while still produced in the studio.
Mitchell’s solo contribution on the violin is second to none, where she plays throughout with a highly-studied and totally idiomatic feeling for the composer’s eminently-emotional style which, of course, adds considerably to the success of this debut recording. But in her alternative role as director, she so evidently communicates her quite-recent love for, and heartfelt appreciation of Williams, and her chamber music in particular, to which each of her co-performers appears totally sympathetic, and equally committed.
Whether you listen to the whole disc in one go, or pick a few works to sample, this CD is very hard to put down, and will undoubtedly encourage you to investigate more of Grace Williams’s larger-scale works in other genres, and soon come to realise that there is far more to Wales’s foremost female composer than a Fantasia on indigenous nursery tunes might suggest.
The informative and helpful CD booklet in English and Welsh is also down to Madeleine Mitchell, so perhaps in summing up this highly-desirable release on the Naxos label, it might be most apt to say ‘Iechyd da’ (‘cheers’) to her for the vital part she has played in introducing the undeniably-attractive chamber music of Grace Williams to music-lovers everywhere.
Philip R Buttall