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Spirited performances make a strong case for Grace Williams chamber works

Grace Williams: Chamber Music

Madeleine Mitchell (violin), London Chamber Ensemble

Grace Williams (1906–1977) was one of the first professional Welsh composers of the twentieth-century to attain significant national recognition, although her work remains virtually unknown outside of Britain. Many of her remarkably distinctive pieces are directly inspired by Wales and its culture. I first came across this composer via her Trumpet Concerto¹ performed by Howard Snell with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Charles Groves on a Lyrita CD – one that would provide an excellent introduction to Williams’ work. On the same label there is also a fine account of both her Symphony No. 2 and Ballads for Orchestra by the late Vernon Handley conducting the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra.

Prior to this release I was unaware of any of the chamber works that Grace Williams had written. Perhaps the neglect of these works is in part due to the highly self-critical composer marking a number of her chamber work scores as “not worth performing GW”. Fortunately for us after discovering and playing the Violin Sonata, Madeleine Mitchell was minded to research further chamber works from this neglected composer thus allowing us to encounter this intriguing release containing premiere recordings of six works all of which were previously unpublished (with the exception of the Violin Sonata).

The Violin Sonata is a punchy, three-movement work that Williams wrote whilst she was in her twenties. This piece, lasting just short of twenty minutes, in which Mitchell is joined by Konstantin Lapshin, gets the collection of to a fine start. The Sextet for Oboe, Trumpet, Piano & String Trio, written just a year later, was one of the few chamber works that the composer felt worthy of performing! It is certainly a substantial piece that contains some virtuoso writing. The players of the London Chamber Ensemble give a spirited performance of this work and pay careful attention to the balance of the instruments – never allowing Williams’ beloved trumpet to over-power the other instruments here or in the somewhat Stravinsky-esque Suite for Nine Instruments that follows. Romanza is a charmingly simple short piece for oboe and bass clarinet played beautifully here by John Anderson and Andrew Sparling. Following its appearance on this CD, played by David Owen Norris, the Sarabande for Piano Left Hand must surely join the repertoire for piano left-hand! The disc ends delightfully with the Rondo for Dancing (1970) played by two violinists and the (optional) cellist.

These pieces may not be the greatest of works but they are immensely listenable and deserve to be heard by a wider audience and I, for one, am extremely grateful to Madeleine Mitchell for her bringing this project to fruition and leading such spirited performances with just the right degree of flair. This is a valuable addition to the recorded catalogue and one that, I hope, will encourage listeners to explore further recordings of Grace Williams’ music.

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¹ Grace Williams declared her favourite instrument to be the trumpet.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 – Work No. 91 in our collection

The Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (27.01.1756 – 05.12.1791) was, during his short lifetime, one of the most prolific composers of the classical era. He showed prodigious ability from an early age. Already competent as a pianist and violinist, he composed from the age of five and performed before European royalty. Mozart went on to compose more than 600 works, many of which are acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, operatic, and choral music.

In 1781, Mozart moved away from Salzburg to the musically more sophisticated Vienna, where he was a freelance composer, pianist and teacher. From the outset, in Vienna, he enjoyed considerable success, particularly as a pianist performing his own concertos and with his early comic opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782). During his final years in Vienna, he composed many of his best-known concertos, operas and symphonies, including Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550 the score of which was completed on 25 July 1788. This great symphony is written in the key of G minor and the melancholy feel of this key pervades the first movement, although other movements are lighter in mood. The work comprises the usual four movements, but what is slightly unusual is that Mozart uses sonata form to structure the first, second and fourth movements. The third movement is the usual minuet and trio.

There are many fine versions of this symphony on record. One of our favourites remains Karl Bohm’s 1961 account with the Berliner Philharmoniker recorded in Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin as part of the first complete set of Mozart’s symphonies to be recorded. This symphony is currently available as part of a bargain two-CD set containing symphonies Nos. 35 – 41. This is a big orchestra version. Another great recording of this work is directed by Claudio Abbado and his Orchestra Mozart recorded at Teatro Manzoni, Bologna in June 2009.

However if we are to recommend one version is must be the one conducted by that superb Mozartian, Sir Charles Mackerras with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra recorded in excellent ly balanced sound by Linn Records that enables every fine detail to be heard. In these unrivalled performances Mackerras encourages his players to move between this work’s passages of tenderness and beauty and those of high intensity and great excitement in a most natural manner. This is some of the best playing of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra that I have ever heard – they were truly on top form.

View the other works in our collection.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s DG debut brings us outstanding Weinberg

Weinberg: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 21

Gidon Kremer (violin), Kremerata Baltica, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor)

For her debut on the DG label, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla gives us two symphonies from the Polish born Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg. First up we have the early Symphony No. 2 for string orchestra, Op. 30 performed with the Kremerata Baltica. For the much later Symphony No. 21, Op. 152, ‘Kaddish’, completed in 1991, they are joined by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and their artist-in-residence the violinist Gidon Kremer who performs the many violin solos, in this recording made in the Symphony Hall, Birmingham last November.

For those readers who are unfamiliar with the work of Weinberg his output includes twenty-two symphonies and seventeen string quartets. His bleak string writing is very reminiscent of Shostakovich whilst in the later symphony presented here there are quotes from Mahler and others, including Chopin.

Symphony No. 2 for string orchestra, Op. 30 shows Weinberg as having fully embraced symphonic style and compositional tradition. In the first and second movements Weinberg makes use of programmatic elements and the second movement is almost Schumannesque. This work has a depth and beauty that make it surprising that it has not been more frequently performed.

However it is the epic Symphony No. 21 ‘Kaddish’, a single-movement elegy in six sections lasting almost 55 minutes, that, in this exceptionally well-prepared performance, is the main reason to seek out this album. This symphony, dedicated to the victims of the Warsaw ghetto, is appropriately presented by Mirga and her assembled forces as a work of enormous power; one that is by turns desolate, anguished and angry. In the closing pages of the work some sense of light and hope is brought to this portrayal of inhumanity by the voice of the wordless soprano. In spite of the sprawling nature and patchwork quality of this symphony, Gražinytė-Tyla shows a clear grasp of the symphony’s architecture and it is hard to see this work getting a finer performance than this.

In the sleeve notes there is a tantalising hint of more to come and I, for one, cannot wait to hear more of this conductor, who clearly holds Weinberg’s work in the highest regard, performing more of his output. Perhaps we can expect the Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 67 performed by these forces in Birmingham last month?

In the meanwhile if this tempts you to further explore the work of this unjustly neglected composer then I can recommend that you seek out some of Thord Svedlund’s recordings on Chandos with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra – they, too, are well worth a listen.

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Colourful and poetic Rachmaninov preludes from Giltburg

Rachmaninov: 24 Préludes

Boris Giltburg (piano)

In January, when reviewing Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, I wrote “I am becoming increasingly impressed by Boris Giltburg each time that I encounter a new release from him on the Naxos label.” I could easily repeat that remark in relation to Giltburg’s latest Rachmaninov release. This CD / download comes with an excellent booklet with notes written by the young Israeli pianist, Boris Giltburg in which he states  ‘Written over a period of 18 years, Rachmaninov’s sets of Preludes are a mirror and a record of his music evolution. With so rich variety of character, texture and mood, no two preludes are fully alike, and differentiation of temper and register ensures that each prelude’s character is clearly defined.”

Unlike Chopin’s set of 24 Preludes, these were not written as a single entity. However like Bach and Chopin, Rachmaninov does give us one prelude written in each major/minor key. The first prelude of the cycle, the “Bells of Moscow” Prelude, Op.3 No.2, was published as a part of Op.3 Morceaux de Fantasie in 1892. By the time Rachmaninov premiered his Preludes Op. 23 Nos. 1-10, in Moscow in February 1903, he was aware of Chopin’s and Scriabin’s Twenty-Four Preludes in each key but he still had doubts about writing a full set. Rachmaninov’s Preludes Op. 32 Nos. 1-13, written in 1910, display a further development in Rachmaninov’s style in both technical and musical language terms – making use of extensive chromaticism and filled with ever-flowing melodic lines.

In many respects these preludes can be considered an encyclopedia of Rachmaninov’s compositional language: tonality, harmonic language, form, sonorities and pianistic tone colours. The Op. 23 set are very romantic pieces whilst the thirteen later Op. 32 pieces require a more muscular approach thus requiring versatility from the performer in an ideal set.

Many readers will be familiar with the popular Prelude Op. 3 No. 2 in C sharp minor, Prelude Op. 23 No. 5 in G minor and Prelude Op. 32 No. 12 in G sharp minor as stand alone concert pieces. These works get performances from Giltburg that bear comparison with the very best. Few pianists appear equally at home in each of the two sets of preludes but on this recording we get highly rewarding accounts of both that show Giltburg to have a multi-faceted range of skills in delivering musically satisfying performances of these technically challenging and demanding works. Recorded in the exceptional acoustic of the concert hall on the Wyastone Estate, Monmouth in high definition sound this bargain priced issue comes as a top recommendation.

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