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us to encounter this intriguing release containing premiere recordings of six works all of which were previously unpublished (with the exception of the Violin Sonata).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.

iClassical rating:

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