G. WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 2. Ballads for Orchestra. Fairest of Stars

G. WILLIAMS:  Symphony No. 2.  Ballads for Orchestra.  Fairest of Stars.  Vernon Handley conducting the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra.  Sir Charles Groves conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.  Janet Price, soprano.  LYRITA SRCD-327 [ADD]; 69:15.  Produced by Bob Auger and John Willan.

This is a most welcome release, providing an excellent introduction to the music of Welsh composer Grace Williams (1906-1977), through reissues of material previously available on LP.  Fairest of Stars was originally released on EMI in 1974, while the other two pieces appeared on Lyrita in 1980.  While I am not familiar with much of Williams’ music, these three works indicate a strongly assertive, highly expressive, and self-assured compositional voice.  While her musical language reveals traces of Vaughan Williams (her teacher) and other early 20th-century figures important to her, these influences do not overwhelm her own creative identity.

Grace Williams composed her Second Symphony in 1956, revising it some twenty years later, shortly before her death.  It is a large, powerful work, serious in tone– a “major statement” in the post-romantic sense.  On first acquaintance, its expansive assertiveness recalls the Fourth Symphony of Vaughan Williams, although its grim, somber mood and noble, elevated tone also call Edmund Rubbra to mind.  Its serious character is sustained throughout, uncompromised by lapses into the cute or flashy.

Less abstract and more picturesque than the symphony are the four Ballads of 1968.  Deliberately suggesting images of medieval Wales, the Ballads are brilliant and evocative tone poems, almost cinematic in their rich, vivid colors, bold gestures, and slightly exotic images, without ever approaching the slick or ingratiating. Mahler, Kodaly, Bloch, and Herrmann are composers who occurred to me as sharing similar modes of expression.  Both the Symphony and the Ballads are performed by the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, who, under Vernon Handley’s direction, convey the spirit of the music while lacking the polish and solidity of ensemble required for the music to make its fullest impact.

The latest work on the disc is Fairest of Stars, a setting for soprano and orchestra of a portion of Book V of Milton’s Paradise Lost — a universal hymn in praise of God.  This is another impressive work, somewhat suggesting Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi, in its use of the human voice in an ethereal, almost supernatural way.  Its wide-ranging melisma makes considerable demands on the soprano — in this case, Janet Price, who offers an incisive, tightly focused rendition.   The London Symphony Orchestra, as one might expect, makes a better showing than the Welsh orchestra.

All three of these works hold one’s attention throughout, and prove increasingly rewarding with greater familiarity.  Grace Williams is a composer worth getting to know, and this disc is a fine place to start.