Grace Williams: Violin Sonata, Sextet, etc

Madeleine Mitchell (violin); London Chamber Orchestra (Naxos)

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CD_8571380_Williams

Grace Williams
Violin Sonata; Sextet for Oboe, Trumpet & Piano Quartet; Suite for 9 Instruments; Romanza etc
Madeleine Mitchell (violin); London Chamber Orchestra
Naxos 8.571380   70:31 mins

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Grace Williams, the Grove Dictionary tells us, ‘showed little interest in instrumental chamber music’, a statement that this disc of premiere recordings might at first sight refute. This distinguished Welsh composer, a long-time friend of Benjamin Britten, certainly explored the chamber genre in the 1930s, following her student years, though her later comment written on the manuscripts – ‘not worth performing’ – suggests that she became acutely aware that her gifts flourished best in larger, more lyrical formats.

It’s clear that maintaining contrapuntal discourse didn’t come easily in the 1931 Sextet, a 30-minute work further burdened with an instrumental line-up that never becomes well-balanced (oboe, violin, viola, cello, piano, plus intruding trumpet). Even so, any awkward moments across this album never stop the pieces crystallising into interesting listening. The 1930 Violin Sonata, the only work to have reached print, starts with pugnacious staccato writing in the shade of Stravinsky and Bartók. Once phrases get longer and lyrical, Vaughan Williams, one of her teachers, raises his head. Style and instrumentation fuse most happily in the 1934 Suite, where the trumpet, one of Grace Williams’s favourite instruments, finally finds suitable company with a flute, clarinet, piano, and string quartet. The other items on the album are later, shorter and wispier.

With Konstantin Lapshin at the piano, Madeleine Mitchell makes eloquent work of the Violin Sonata despite an unnourishing acoustic, and the other players enjoy their spin through pieces that may not change history, or Williams’s reputation, but still deserve their escape from the library shelves.

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Geoff Brown