Friday, 18 March 2016

Vindicated After 45 Years

Steph Power's review in Wales Arts Review today of Grace Williams's Missa Cambrensis at St David's Hall, Cardiff on 1 March (read it here) reminded me to go back and listen again to the broadcast (courtesy of Radio 3's website): a vindication of a work that had all but disappeared after its first performance in June 1971. Commissioned for the Llandaff Festival in 1966, it was to have been Grace Williams's most ambitious score - a setting of the mass with interpolations for choir, boys' choir, four soloists and a large orchestra. The premiere itself was a disaster (as can be heard on a recording of that night) with the choir and the orchestra struggling with the work's tough and demanding writing. You can hear a very moving account here of that first performance as part of a link in Ty Cerdd's recent newsletter here which also gives some fascinating background to the work. The composer, by all accounts, wept all the way home to Barry in her taxi.

Grace Williams with Sir Charles Groves and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra

The performance by the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales under Tecwyn Evans (the chorus trained by Adrian Partington) finally proved that the work was both fully viable but also established it beyond doubt as possibly the greatest and most ambitious large-scale choral work to have yet emerged from Wales. It was an act of faith on behalf of the BBC, but would not have happened had not Keith Griffin commissioned a new edition of the work several years ago whilst still at Ty Cerdd, brought to fruition by Chris Painter at Oriana Press and Graeme Cotterill who edited the work for his PhD at Bangor University. Here is a page from the manuscript vocal score.

The piece itself is far from being a 'comfortable' listen. It sustains a highly wrought, intense and unremitting musical language for over an hour and is far from perfect (the structural purpose of the solo vocal writing remains difficult to see) - yet in this respect, it is quite unlike much else in Welsh music and this gives it its unique power. It is still available until the end of the month on the BBC website here - do listen now.

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