Grace Williams: Chamber Works review – do not take this neglected Welsh composer at her word! | Erica Jeal's classical CD of the week

London Chamber Ensemble/Mitchell
Madeleine Mitchell and the LCE have recorded six unpublished chamber works by the 20th-century composer. It’s a fascinating listen

Grace Williams was far from alone as a composer in being almost cripplingly self-critical, but the verdict she scribbled on several of her chamber music manuscripts when she revisited them, aged 51 – “not worth performing” – has been taken too literally, and for too long.

Grace Williams: Chamber Music album artwork
Grace Williams: Chamber Music album artwork Photograph: PR HANDOUT

Williams was born and died in Barry, and her existing reputation as one of Wales’s leading composers was won largely through vocal and orchestral music. She is credited by some with writing the first Welsh symphony, and in 1949 was the first British woman to score a feature film, Blue Scar. Yet this hadn’t been enough to pique much interest in her chamber music until two years ago, when Madeleine Mitchell unearthed the manuscript of her Violin Sonata. It’s a punchy and piquant work, written in Vienna in 1930, when Williams was in her 20s and studying with Egon Wellesz, cultivating a European musical outlook that would stay with her, even if her chamber music sits squarely in the tradition of contemporaneous English composers such as Herbert Howells and Gordon Jacob – and, indeed, her teacher and mentor Vaughan Williams. Mitchell turned up five further unpublished chamber works – two larger in scope, three charming and skilful miniatures – all of which, like the Sonata, are recorded here for the first time.

The players of the London Chamber Ensemble make the writing sing, providing unflagging rhythmic drive, and taking care over some tricky issues of balance: both the 1931 Sextet and the 1934 Suite for Nine Instruments have a trumpet in the mix, but rather than crushing the competition it is here counterbalanced by some vibrant oboe and violin playing. Hearing these pieces back to back emphasises a sense of harmonic inertia that is more obviously present in Williams’s chamber music than in her larger-scale works, but the players never let things get bogged down. It’s a persuasive disc to dip into, one to spark interest in Williams’s other works.

Also out this week

If there is one text that has freed up the imagination of church music composers over the centuries it is the Song of Songs. The latest disc from Ora Singers, Desires celebrates this in a luxuriant sequence of anthems spanning the beginnings of polyphony to the present day. Crisp yet sensuous music by Palestrina and Brumel rubs up against the unabashed lushness of Francis Grier’s gorgeous Dilectus Meus Mihi from 1987, and there are brand new commissions by Jonathan Dove and John Barber.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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