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Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931-2003)
Concerto for Organ and Orchestra (1961) [27:02]1
Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat (1962)2 [32:19]
Sonata for Two Pianos (1967)3 [7:36]
Malcolm Williamson (organ of Guildford Cathedral1, piano2,3), Richard Rodney Bennett (piano)3
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult1, Leonard Dommett2
rec. 1Guildford Cathedral, January 1974; 2Kingsway Hall, London, February 1974; 31972,venue and exact date not stated. ADD.
LYRITA SRCD.280 [67:02]



I recently bemoaned the neglect of another musical Malcolm, Malcolm Arnold, the Naxos reissue of whose complete symphonies I was pleased to recommend. The works of Malcolm Williamson, late Master of the Queen’s Music, suffered an even greater neglect both during the latter part of his lifetime and since. Though he was a prolific composer, by my count there are presently available fewer than ten CDs wholly or largely devoted to his music, including the current one.
 
Even Naxos and Chandos, those great advocates of twentieth-century British music, have made only partial amends, the former with a CD of his choral music, 8.557783, recommended on Musicweb with minor reservations by Hubert Culot and even more wholeheartedly by Gary Higginson. Rob Barnett welcomed Volume 1 of Chandos’ Williamson recordings on CHAN10359; the second volume is available on CHAN10406, containing the First and Fifth Symphonies and some shorter works. Rob also reviewed ABC’s complete piano music set in 2003.
 
In Australia, the land of his birth, ABC have issued a number of CDs which contain works by Williamson, including a recommendable version of his Concerto for Two Pianos, with Williamson himself as one of the soloists, coupled with other Australian Concertos (Eloquence 426 483-2). This bargain-price CD appears not to be readily available in the UK but may be ordered online from Buywell in Australia.
 
Paul Conway wrote a 70th Birthday Tribute to Williamson for this website: those unfamiliar with Williamson’s music could do much worse than to read that article, which refers, amongst other matters, to the Lyrita LP, SRCS79 – never before released on CD, to the best of my knowledge – from which the two orchestral works on the current disc have been reissued. Since that article contains a detailed analysis of the Organ Concerto and the Third Piano Concerto – an analysis which I found useful in listening to these works, unfamiliar with them as I was – it would be superfluous to repeat the information.
 
I would, however, draw the reader’s attention to the implications of some of the facts contained in the article. Elizabeth Lutyens and Erwin Stein, one of Schoenberg’s ex-students, were among Williamson’s composition teachers, which means that it is hardly surprising that he experimented with 12-tone serial technique. I make this point to warn off those who, seeing that Sir Adrian Boult was the dedicatee and conductor of the Organ Concerto, assume it to be a work of the so-called English pastoral movement. Williamson did write light music – was, indeed, a night-club pianist for a time – but the works on this CD are emphatically neither pastoral nor light.
 
While there may be some echoes of the pastoral school in the peaceful slow movement of the Organ Concerto, the hectic outer movements sound more like Boulez than Vaughan Williams, unless it be the more frenzied sections of the latter’s Job. Even in the slow movement there are echoes of Boulez’s mentor Messiaen – and Messiaen at his sharpest – to whose mystical Catholicism Williamson was drawn on his conversion to Rome. This may not be ‘easy’ music but the finale, in which all the stops are pulled out - metaphorically and, I imagine, literally - is hard to resist.
 
After this finale, the rather angular opening of the Third Piano Concerto comes as something of a shock, though the more lyrical second subject makes amends. This, too, is music which repays repeated hearing, a large-scale concerto in four movements. As a lover of Messiaen who finds most of Boulez unpalatable, I am thankful to find more of the former than the latter in this work. As the first movement develops, a jazz-like rhythm, with just a hint of Copland – or perhaps it’s the wide-open spaces of his native Australia, rather than those of the US – makes the work even more approachable. In the Scherzo, the tuneful and the sterner aspects of Williamson’s music alternate like the two aspects of his personality which Schumann expressed in his music – or like those moments in the Late Quartets where Beethoven moulds the most exquisite tune only for it to break down almost at once. In the slow movement gentle elegy and impassioned grief or rage alternate – here, too, Chopinesque glissandi are punctuated by staccato interruptions – before the joyful resolution of a finale which might have been taken from one of Williamson’s film scores. Shades even of Ibert’s Divertissement.
 
The Sonata makes a worthwhile, if rather angular, addition to the contents of the original LP.
 
If this is ‘difficult’ music for the listener, it is also difficult for the performers. Williamson’s presence as soloist in the Concertos and as one of the duettists, with Richard Rodney Bennett, in the other work, acts as a kind of imprimatur. Poets and composers are not always the best interpreters of their own works – for me, T. S. Eliot reads his own poetry with all the feeling of someone reciting a shopping list – but Williamson negotiates the difficult solo parts with feeling and the accompaniments and recording do him full justice. As the Organ Concerto was commissioned for the Proms, it was presumably written with the Albert Hall organ and acoustics in mind, but Guildford Cathedral and its Rushworth & Dreaper instrument make excellent substitutes. In no sense is the re-mastered analogue recording inferior to a modern digital recording.
 
Though not one of the obvious gems in Lyrita’s growing catalogue of reissues, this CD may be confidently recommended. The music may not make an immediate impression, but it certainly repays the persevering listener. The notes in the booklet, by composer himself, add to its value.
 
Brian Wilson

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and John Sheppard

Lyrita catalogue 



 


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