Composers: Grace Williams
Compositions: Chamber music
Performers: Madeleine Mitchell v, David Owen Norris p, London Chamber Ensemble
Catalogue Number: NAXOS 8571380

Grace Williams (1906-1977) is regarded as the foremost Welsh female composer of the 20th century. Her name may be familiar from her orchestral piece, the Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes, or her Second Symphony recorded some decades ago by Vernon Handley. Williams studied with Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music in London, where Benjamin Britten was a fellow student. Though Williams’s work gained a reputation, she had difficulty securing performances: not only because she was a woman but also due to her acute self-criticism. Now that the music of female composers past and present is being promoted, audiences can discover what they have been missing.

The works in this chamber recital are substantial and communicative, and all are premiere recordings. The Violin Sonata of 1930 (revised in 1938) contains a flowing, folk-like slow movement. While Vaughan Williams is a clear influence, the outer movements have a rhythmic spikiness not far removed from Tippett, or Williams’ younger Welsh contemporary William Mathias. The attractive Sextet (1931) features a trumpet, which is required to play lyrically in alt and to provide several fanfares: quite a demanding part. The most modern of the major works is the Suite for Nine Instruments (1934), harmonically reminiscent of Bartók and full of thematic interest. It is slightly dark in tone. Finally, three short works complete the program: Romanza for Oboe and Bass Clarinet, a Sarabande for Piano (Left Hand), and a Rondo for Two Violins and Cello (1970).

Violinist Madeleine Mitchell produces a pure line and is impressively precise in the Sonata, where she is strongly matched by Russian pianist Konstantin Lapshin. David Owen Norris, a British music specialist, shines in the Sarabande and the Sextet, while trumpeter Bruce Nockles also proves a great asset. Sound quality is excellent. Altogether, an exciting release.

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