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Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931-2003)
Overture 'Santiago de Espada' (1957) [6:33]
Symphony No. 1 'Elevamini' (1957) [29:49]
Sinfonia Concertante for three trumpets, piano and strings (1958/61) [18:46]
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1957 rev. 1971) [17:28]
Martin Jones (piano) (sinfonia)
Malcolm Williamson (piano) (sonata)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves
rec. Kingsway Hall, London September 1971 (Sonata); Liverpool, June 1976
LYRITA SRCD281 [72:43]



Years ago I attended a concert at the Festival Hall by the Bach Choir and LPO under Sir David Willcocks, performing music by the last four Masters of the Queen’s Music. Elgar was represented by his Coronation Ode, Bax by the ubiquitous Tintagel, and Sir Arthur Bliss by the rarely heard Beatitudes. The opening item was Williamson’s Santiago de Espada Overture, included on this disc. After this the larger-than-life composer made his way to the front of the hall, clad in what appeared to be a multi-coloured kaftan, to acknowledge the applause.
 
When Williamson died in 2003 the general critical consensus seemed to be that he was a composer who had never quite realised his initial promise. Blessed - or cursed? - with tremendous facility, he was able to turn his hand to a wide range of skills, encompassing opera, chamber music, sacred works and orchestral music.  He enjoyed initial successes in the 1950s and 1960s, and the championship of figures such as Sir Adrian Boult, who performed the Santiago de Espada Overture and Symphony No. 1 at a private concert in St Pancras Town Hall in 1957. However, subsequent critical reception became less positive; works were criticised for being ‘shallow’ or ‘insincere’. Williamson’s very versatility was now seen as suspect.  What was perceived in some quarters as a lack of discipline in his approach to composition led to situations where he was unable to finish commissioned pieces within agreed timescales, most famously on the occasion of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.  In later years ill health and domestic crises substantially reduced Williamson’s output. But there was much in his life that was positive. His interest in the therapeutic power of music that arose from his participatory operas of the 1960s led to work with disabled children. He maintained a consistent belief in music as a force for good in the world, and in its ability to change listeners for the better.
 
Since his death there has been something of a reawakening of interest in Williamson’s music, with Chandos recently embarking on a series of recordings with Rumon Gamba and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. The majority of the works on this Lyrita CD initially appeared on a 2CD gatefold release from EMI in 1977, also featuring Menuhin’s recording of the Violin Concerto and the ballet The Display conducted by John Hopkins. This - with the exception of the Violin Concerto - is their first CD reissue, and it makes an excellent companion to an earlier Lyrita release (SRCD 280) featuring the Organ Concerto and Third Piano Concerto under Boult and Leonard Dommett respectively.
 
The opening Santiago de Espada Overture is a cracking example of its genre, combining Waltonian ebullience and nobility within Williamson’s personal musical language. Its absence from regular concert programmes is to be regretted.
 
The Symphony No. 1 (Elevamini) also dating from 1957 is much more serious fare. It was written following the death of the composer’s grandmother and opens with a sequence of grinding chords which recur at key moments throughout the work and which represent the opening of the gates of New Jerusalem to admit new souls. This is followed by a long threnody for strings alone, a passage that would not be out of place in a symphony by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, before the second section of the movement is introduced by hushed chords on horns and more restless flute figurations. This leads to a slow funeral march, with sinister throbbing timpani underpinning the texture, building to a recurrence of the grinding chords. The movement concludes serenely.
 
The central Allegretto movement that follows provides welcome rhythmic and textural contrast. Paul Conway in his booklet notes finds a “Coplandesque” quality to the music here. There is imaginative use of percussion, too, and a general lightness of approach that is refreshing.
 
We are back to more serious stuff with the Finale. This contrasts slow moving passages, including an insistent trumpet call, with faster, dancing figures and rhythmic timpani. As the movement progresses the distinction between these lessens, and builds the tension until the final reappearance of the grinding chords that opened the symphony. The work ends with a quiet, long-held string chord.
 
As with his First Symphony, the inspiration behind Williamson’s Sinfonia Concertante is again to be found in the composer’s deeply-held religious beliefs. All three movements of the work have revealing titles. The opening movement (Gloria in excelsis Deo) is fast moving and rhythmic and makes several references to the traditional Gloria chant. This is followed by a contrasting slow movement (Salve Regina) and an ebullient Finale (Gloria Patri) which features a prominent trumpet part. The threads of the music are pulled together in a short epilogue.
 
In all these works Sir Charles Groves and the RLPO demonstrate total commitment to the music. They are as equally at home in the effervescence of the Santiago de Espada Overture as in the seriousness of the Elevamini Symphony. Martin Jones is the capable soloist in the Sinfonia Concertante.
 
The Second Piano Sonata, which concludes this disc, is taken from an Argo LP featuring various British composers playing their own works. It is a tougher nut to crack than the orchestral works, displaying a more uncompromising side to Williamson’s work and perhaps reflecting his studies with Elizabeth Lutyens and Schoenberg disciple Erwin Stein in the 1950s. The composer himself proves a capable interpreter.
 
There are informative booklet notes by Paul Conway, and those interested in finding out more about Williamson’s life and works should also take a look at Paul Conway’s fascinating article on the composer, which also includes more detailed commentaries of several of the works on this CD.
 
This CD proved something of a revelation; a composer who has something serious to say, particularly in the First Symphony, and whose latter-day reputation as a purveyor of shallow trifles is, on the evidence of the works heard here, undeserved.
 
Ewan McCormick

see also review by Rob Barnett
 
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