Grace Williams’s Mass Finally Gets the Performance It Deserves

03/03/2016

Grace Williams: Fflur Wyn (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Rees (tenor), Jason Howard (bass), Rowan Williams (narrator), members of National Youth Choir of Wales, Ysgol Gerdd Ceredigion, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Huw Morgan (trumpet), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Tecwyn Evans (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 1.3.2016 (PCG)

Grace Williams – Fantasia on Welsh nursery songs
Grace Williams – Trumpet Concerto
Grace Williams – Missa Cambrensis

The focus point of this St David’s Day concert was the performance of Grace Williams’s hour-long Missa Cambrensis, its first outing since its première in Llandaff Cathedral 45 years ago. That original presentation was apparently not much short of a disaster. The BBC Welsh Orchestra, a smaller body than their present-day successors, had to be supplemented by additional players hired in for the occasion from London; and the choirs involved (the BBC Chorus in Wales did not commence operations until the mid-1970s) had considerably underestimated the difficulties involved in the work. Add to this a severe lack of rehearsal time, and the result was a performance that apparently reduced the composer to tears and was received by the critics with professional admiration rather than much positive enthusiasm. The Welsh Music Centre Ty Cerdd have made available on their website a recording by a member of that first audience which makes enlightening and sometimes depressing listening. For this second performance the BBC ensured that adequate rehearsal time was made available, the chorus and orchestra were fully on top of the difficulties of the score, and a superb line-up of soloists was provided.

Was the effort worthwhile? Well, I have to admit that at the beginning of the Mass I was sceptical. Although the choral writing in the Kyrie was effective and the orchestral colouring was sombrely impressive, the vocal lines assigned to the soloists lacked profile and their continual hocketing in the highest registers produced a sense of strain. Similarly in the generally upbeat setting of the Gloria there was a sense of Waltonian jollity rather than anything specifically Welsh to justify the title of the mass; and the closing fugal setting of Cum Sancto Spirito, although it eventually produced a fine climax, seemed to proceed at a rather leisurely pace. But then, at the beginning of the Credo, everything suddenly seemed to come into focus. The opening section, with its choral chants and murmured contributions from the vocal soloists, led inexorably onwards to the incarnation which was commemorated by a setting of a Saunders Lewis poem Carol Nadolig scored magically for children’s choir and harp with a discreet orchestral accompaniment of great beauty. And this was succeeded by a narrator delivering the text of the Beatitudes in Welsh, underpinned initially by string quartet and then flowering into fuller orchestration which had all the ecstasy that we find in the Vaughan Williams Oxford Elegy (to cite another work for narrator and orchestra). The remainder of the setting of the Credo continued this mood, and the succeeding movements – a solemnly hieratic setting of the Sanctus, a beautifully contained march-like Benedictus, and an Agnus Dei which began in emotional turmoil and ended in peace and reconciliation, finally persuaded the audience that this was indeed a neglected masterpiece. Even the return of material from the Gloria in the final pages did not disturb the mood. Of the soloists, Jason Howard had to plead indulgence from the audience for an attack of laryngitis, and Andrew Rees sounded very strained at times by the high-lying heroics with which the composer had furnished him; but Catherine Wyn-Rogers and especially Fflur Wyn floated their cantilenas with warmth and emotion, even when the composer’s orchestral scoring threatened to overpower their voices (I dread to think how these passages would have come across in 1971 in Llandaff Cathedral). Both the adult and children’s choirs were in superb form, and the orchestra were also excellent even though Sebastian Comberti’s solo cello was somewhat backward in the balance. To add icing to the cake, the spoken delivery of the Beatitudes was undertaken by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, with his resonant Welsh blending perfectly into the orchestra, and sitting on the side of the stage like a benevolent presence throughout the remainder of the performance. Tecwyn Evans certainly seemed to have all these various bodies under firm control, although the manifest difficulties of performance were not entirely concealed.

For the first half of this concert we heard two earlier works by Grace Williams. She was (I think) the first Welsh composer ever to have had an orchestral composition committed to gramophone records; and the piece in question, her Fantasia on Welsh nursery tunes, made a fitting opening to the programme. The work could be dismissed as purely light music – a more recent Naxos recording featured it on a disc entitled “Welsh popular classics” – but the slow interlude based on the lullaby Si lwli mabi is rather more than that, especially as introduced here by Matthew Featherstone’s flute with Robert Plane’s clarinet burbling cheerfully away in the background, and then taken up with beautiful warmth by the orchestral violins, a truly heavenly moment. After that the expert Huw Morgan gave a superbly engaged rendering of the Trumpet Concerto. In her booklet note Rhiannon Mathias quoted Williams’s fellow-composer William Mathias as writing that “despite its clear idiom it is not a work which yields up all its secrets at one hearing.” But of course we have now got to know the work through recording, and it seems clear enough that between the lyrical opening movement and the lively finale the central passacaglia has decidedly darker undertones. Based on a highly chromatic theme employing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale (although the work is not otherwise twelve-tone in any way) the onward dark march, with the trumpet playing improvisatory lines like a traveller whistling in the dark, has a sinister feel which reminds me of other similar haunted movements in (for example) Mathias’s own Harp Concerto.

Those unfamiliar with the music of Grace Williams should really make a point of seeking out this broadcast (it is available on i-player for thirty days, and was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3). The body of the composer’s recorded output is not large, fitting onto three CDs (two from Lyrita, one from Chandos), although some earlier works suppressed by the composer during her lifetime – her First Symphony and Violin Concerto – have also been revived by the BBC. Hopefully these may be released on CD before long, together indeed with the Missa Cambrensis.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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