A column by Don Mager
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Grace Williams. Ballads for Orchestra (1968) with Vernon Hadley and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, Fairest of Stars for Soprano and Orchestra (1973) with Janet Price and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Groves, and Symphony No.2 (1956) with Vernon Hadley and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra. Lyrita SRCD.372 (1996).
The recent disk of three works by Grace Williams (1907-1977) represents works slightly earlier than I intend normally to review, but these works are of such audible eventfulness, I cannot resist talking about them. The performances themselves go back to 1974 and 1980.
My intention is to focus on the "listening" experience, not historical or other reasons for choosing a work, so will simply mention Williams was Welsh and trained with Ralph Vaughn Williams in the 1940s.
Ballads consists of four short contrasting movements, such that it feels like a short highly condensed symphony, and like the Symphony No.2, which is longer if not more weighty, the faster movements of both works are built of terse aggressive almost strident melodic modules worked out through tense tight developments. The third Ballad (Andante calmante), and the second and fourth movements of the Symphony (Andante sostenuto, and Largo) are contrasted to the surrounding brash movements, with broad lyrical mediations.
A tragic seriousness pervades both works, but never of the neurotic nervousness of Shostakovich, Vainberg or Mahler, and never with the intentional "Celtic" broodiness of Bax.
What distinguishes these works and makes them riveting, easily bearing the test of repeated listenings, are the distinctiveness and economy of the materials. Williams devises melodic kernels which are completely sufficient for the development she wrings from them--neither banal nor over-blown. Each of these musical ideas is intrinsically distinct and absorbing. Furthermore, she treats the orchestral pallet as distinct strands of sound, and maintains a clarity of voicing which is at all moments surprising and satisfying.
Never does the texture muddy-up like some of her English contemporaries (Rubbra, Brian). Finally, she brings each movement to a narrative or argumentative close which comes at just the right point in time; this is especially true of the expansive Largo which culminates the Symphony.
In other words, Williams marks out a time-scape against which to place her aural ideas, and then marks the movement through which our listening minds can negotiate that time-scape with an engagement which never falls into arid patches or inadequately articulated clots of sound. In short, she makes of time a time worth our while to make our own.
Fairest of Stars is based on a passage by Milton from Paradise Lost, a hymn in celebration of the rising suns of of its creator. Janet Price is surely a fine voice for it; but I can imagine that were someone of the stature and resourcefulness of Jesse Norman to take this piece into her repertoire, it could quickly become an established concert item. It is just that fine.
Everything I said about the orchestral works applies, but it is the soprano writing which marks the work's "listenability" and sense of inevitability.
Williams designs a fluent soprano line which continues to unfold, always seeming to be of a seamless piece melodically, but continuously reveling new brilliances. The melody mounts to arching climax upon arching climax. One is reminded of Vaughn Williams use of melodic development in The Lark Ascending and Serenade to Music; but Williams is not imitating her teacher; rather, she has so absorbed her lessons the she creates her own melodic meditation which relies on nothing but its own sufficiency.
But finally, to compare these three works of Grace Williams to anyone else is to mislead, for they offer a musical authenticity and audible detail totally integrated within their own conditions of sound, movement, contrast and time.