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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Grace Williams, Chamber Music, Madeleine Mitchell, London Chamber Ensemble

Not a month goes by lately when I do not benefit in my reviewing capacity by making a discovery. Today is such an instance as I report in on some very interesting Chamber Music (Naxos  8.571380) by Grace Williams (1906-1977) whose music I find most intriguing.

The album features a number of premiere recordings of chamber works, some six in all, played well by the London Chamber Ensemble under violinist/director Madeleine Mitchell. The jacket copy lauds Ms. Williams as Wales' most accomplished composer. She studied with Vaughan Williams and Egon Wellesz, attended the Royal College of Music, and left behind a distinguished body of works if this volume is any indication.

These compositions cover a wide span of time from 1930 through 1970. Yet they all occupy a certain well carved out niche that is tonal yet nicely wayward in a kind of Neo-Classical mode, an original one. The concluding three miniatures ("Romanza for Oboe and Clarinet," "Sarabande for Piano Left Hand" and "Rondo for Dancing for Two Violins and Optional Cello") fascinate. Yet the more substantial opening works are where one is most directly brought to a very satisfying realm--both ambitious and thoroughgoingly personal, inventive, original.

The "Violin Sonata" (1930, rev. 1938) has a kind of thorny, knotty complexity with a thickly double-stopped violin part that almost sounds fiddle-like in its direct intensity, though less so in its actual note choices. Ms. Mitchell carries the day on this fine work and I must say my appreciation for it all increases the more I hear it. This is Contemporary Modern music with a decidedly quirky edge and its own way of backward glancing, a near folkishness like Vaughan Williams could allude to, yet all in her own right.

The "Sextet for Oboe, Trumpet, Violin, Viola, Violincello and Pianoforte" (1931) and the "Suite for Nine Instruments" (1934) have nearly as weighty an impact in their lucid beyond-the-pale qualities. None of this music has the "orchestral but for the quantity of players" feel some composers of the era could be guilty of. No, this is music scaled and theme-built on the smaller chamber scale and so seems to feel quite comfortable in its own instrumentational skin, so to say.

It is a CD I am sure I will return to again and again. And it alerts me to want to hear what else Grace Williams produced in her lifetime, for she clearly had something to say musically. I recommend this one heartily.

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