Grace Williams chamber music get deserved attention

Six Grace Williams chamber works receive their world premiere recordings with this release. It still leaves the bulk of her catalog unrecorded — but it’s an improvement. Williams was one of the most important composers to come from Wales (with William Mathias). She studied with Ralph Vaughan  Williams and Gordon Jacobs.

Their influence can be heard in these works, especially her prewar efforts. The 1930 Violin Sonata is full of rich, modal harmonies, especially in the slow movement. Williams’ music has a folk-like quality to it, but it’s more Welsh than English at its core.

Her Sextet for Oboe, Trumpet, and Piano Quartet is an unusual mix of instruments. And yet Williams makes it work. The style reminded me somewhat of early Benjamin Britten — but Williams is her own woman. She skillfully uses the differences between oboe and trumpet to her advantage. Each instrument casts her motifs in a different light, giving the work a sonic richness and cohesion I found appealing.

The 1934 Suite for Nine Instruments leans closer to Stravinsky than RVW. Written for flute, clarinet, trumpet, piano, and string quartet, the work churns and roils, chromatic harmonies grinding against each other. The melodies also have an angular bent, giving this work an energetic and aggressive stance. As one contemporary reviewer wrote, it’s “sturdy, easy to grasp, thoughtful and attractive.”

These days, Grace Williams is mostly known for her five-minute Elegy for Strings. This recording shows Williams was also a masterful composer of chamber music. Highly recommended.

Grace Williams: Chamber Music
Violin Sonata; Sextet; Suite for Nine Instruments
Madeleine Mitchell, Violin and Director; London Chamber Ensemble
Naxos 8.571380

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