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Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931-2003)
Concerto for Organ and Orchestra * (1961) [27:02]
Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat ** (1962) [32:19]
Sonata for Two Pianos *** (1967) [7:36]
* Malcolm Williamson (organ)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
** Malcolm Williamson (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Dommett
*** Malcolm Williamson and Richard Rodney Bennett, (pianos)
rec. January 1974, Guildford Cathedral (organ); February 1974, Kingsway Hall (piano). ADD
LYRITA SRCD.280 [67:02]

Three Williamson works from the 1960s.

I am sure it must be my fault but I sometimes found Malcolm Williamson’s music elusive. His monumental and splendour-saturated Mass of Christ the King continues to impress but only because I have access to a tape of what I guess is its only performance. His violin concerto as played by Menuhin was on EMI alongside Berkeley and can now be heard with the Panufnik concerto added. That EMI LP made little impression on me but then neither did Berkeley’s concerto which was on the same EMI LP. There was that LP of his Second Piano Concerto and Concerto for two pianos and orchestra with the Sitwell Epitaph. That was more accessible and I would like to see that reissued. There was also a two LP orchestral collection from EMI. At one time there was a CD of his Seventh Symphony on Cala (Christopher Austin) which I have always wanted to hear. So far there have been two Chandos volumes of his orchestral music – one of which I am late in reviewing. We still await first recordings of his First and Fourth Piano Concertos, Hammarskjold Portrait, Josip Broz Tito and the Sixth Symphony.

He seems to have upset the establishment having been late in delivering his commission for the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977. Then there were his views on Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Britten. The formers work for the Queen’s 40th anniversary he described as "absolutely fatuous". As for Britten he described his music as "ephemeral" and as a man he made "an ambidextrous friend - a backstabber too".

Lyrita did their duty to Williamson in the early 1980s by issuing an LP of his Organ Concerto and Third Piano Concerto. It made little impact. Those analogue tapes now pop up again and they have never sounded so good. Time for a reassessment.

The Organ Concerto’s thematic motif is ACB which are also the initials of the dedicatee, Sir Adrian Boult, much admired by Williamson. Each of the three movements deploys different permutations of the full orchestra. The Andante-Allegro places the gentle and the imposing against each other. The thunder of kettle drums can be heard against the strings, some playing pizzicato. The organ is largely placid and quietly ruminative at first then comes the Bernstein-like Allegro spiced with jazzy dislocations, spikiness and dissonance for both the orchestra and the solo. The central Largo uses strings alone with the organ. The strings play a spectral serenading role of considerable beauty perhaps touched with Tippett's sense of complex repose. The finale uses full orchestra with the organ. An imposing kaleidoscopic world of trouble and entrancement is created. This set me remembering that Aurora LP of Williamson's Vision of Christ Phoenix. At 2:38 there begins a wild dash for solo and full orchestra which might perhaps not too fancifully reflect the wild euphoria of the 1960s in which Williamson fully immersed himself. The rhythmic excitement of this writing reminded me of the best of William Schuman – the finale of hid Third Symphony.

The Third Piano Concerto is in four movements, the first of which launches with an insistent 'wrong note' carillon-tirade - a wild battering recalling Malcolm Arnold at his most feral. This is a more lyrical work than the Organ Concerto as the core of the first movement proclaims. There is about it the faintest redolence of the middle movement of the Emperor concerto but even more sentimentally romantic. It is noticeably from the same composer as the Second Concerto. Following Allegro again charms the birds from the trees with less of the clanging 'wrong note' element from the piano and a bouncing forward motion rather than the battering pursuit of the first movement. The third is marked Molto largo e cantando and is well named. It is the longest at 13:19. In it we return to the invocation and securing of peace in tones that hark back to Beethoven's Emperor and also to the quiet meditations of Panufnik. But then cawing brass call a temporarily sustained halt before it returns again. I cannot over-emphasise how magically lissom this writing is. The piano glitters as if from RVW’s Sinfonia antartica and the woodwind and brass moan. This is another prelude to a majestic return to the earlier theme of repose presented this time as if burdened with portent. The movement then ends in a downward curve into peace. After a long silence the short fourth movement returns us to the clanging exultation of the first movement. It sounds like some febrile and intensely sanguine rumba before a final episode that would have any audience with blood in its veins on its feet. It's a magnificent work and now awaits your discovery.

The Sonata for Two Pianos is the latest of the works here. It was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival for the husband and wife team of John Ogdon and Brenda Lucas. It comes from Williamson’s Swedish years which also bore the Second Symphony and the Piano Quintet. Its six movements are concerned with various aspects of the Swedish winter into spring – the cracking ice - the melting snow. The impression is that we never quite get to the budding greenery. Until the more mollifying final Tempo II Tranquillo it is a work of interstitial complexity, stony and uncompromising and making fairly free with dissonance.

The liner essay is by the composer and enthusiastically mixes reminiscence with lucidly expressed description.

This disc is essential to any Williamson collection and a complement to the Chandos series. Later this year Lyrita will reissue many of the works included in that very mixed Williamson 2 LP anthology that appeared circa 1980: It will be SRCD.281: the Santiago de Espada overture - included in Gamba’s performance in volume 1 of the Chandos series – alongside Symphony no.1, Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra and Piano Sonata no.2 (Martin Jones, RLPO/Groves, Williamson).

This disc is essential to any Williamson collection and the Piano Concerto No. 3 demands to be heard.

Rob Barnett

Lyrita Catalogue





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