At last we have an opportunity to assess Malcolm Williamson’s concertante works for the instrument that he himself played and I will say immediately that these performances do the music credit.
The Piano Concerto No. 1
, although written by a young man of only about twenty-five, really seems to represent Williamson’s coming of age. His years of study with Elisabeth Lutyens — ‘twelve tone Lizzy’ as she was painfully called, which had resulted in his own strictly twelve-tone works — were now behind him. At last he could express himself freely. It’s interesting that this concerto is monothematic, although the main melody - a tone row - is transformed so imaginatively that you might not really notice the fact. In the first movement, an Allegro
, it appears in a lively syncopated guise and later as in inversion into a “striking lyrical melody” (booklet notes by Carolyn Philpott). In the second movement the “darker, brooding character” of the intervallic relationships are explored. Finally in the inexhaustible Presto
the ‘melody’ is turned into something approaching a Bernstein-esque show-tune. This is a work that would go down brilliantly at ‘The Proms’ and apparently did so when its second performance was given with the composer at the piano in 1958.
Of all of the works on this double album it’s the Concerto in A minor for two pianos
that I might return to most often. Cast in three movements, the first is a mixture of Bartókian rhythm and energy and twelve-tone technique. The main row is derived from the initials of the pianists who first played the work - Charles H Webb and Wallace Hornbrook. It even brought to mind Skalkottas in its vivacious but nervous sound-world. The middle movement, which the composer described as “plainsong-esque”, establishes a Bartók-like nocturnal world but also has a sense of the Australian prairie; it was premiered in Melbourne. The exciting finale, Allegro Vivo
is a breathless romp culminating in an abrupt final chord. It’s all quite brilliantly realised by Shelley who discards his baton and joins Piers Lane.
It is testimony to Malcolm Williamson’s’ virtuosity not only as a pianist for which by 1960 he was renown, but also to his skills as a composer that his 2nd Piano Concerto
was written in just eight days. True, it’s concise but it never feels abbreviated and there are lots of notes, especially in the piano part. The orchestra is again just strings. Not only is Bartók brought to mind but also the rhythmic energy of early Stravinsky in the outer Allegros. Indeed there is a quote from the ‘Firebird’ in the finale, a work that was then exactly fifty years old at the time. I found the Andante lento
middle movement fascinating. I take issue a little with Carolyn Philpott when, in her excellent booklet essay, she describes its main theme as possibly “inspired by the Jewish heritage of the work’s dedicatee Elaine Goldberg”. To me it’s a daily plainchant melody used for psalms — but then have a very ancient heritage — with its regular Landini cadence. It’s a quasi-religious movement in what is otherwise a light-hearted and frolicsome work as the composer intended. This is music full of Australian positivism and, for that matter, Williamson’s favourite brash Americana.
CD 2 has three works beginning with the Piano Concerto No 3.
Some of you may own the Lyrita recording made by the composer under the little known Leonard Dommett. This is coupled with the Organ Concerto, I still have an excellent LP pressing of it. The early 1960s were a very productive period for Williamson. Some of you may know his thought-provoking Symphony for Voices
completed in 1962 in which movement two ‘Terra Australis’ evokes a barren, empty landscape. This Piano Concerto is a big work premiered by John Ogdon in Australia. Everything said about the first two concertos still applies here, except ‘writ large’.
In fact I have never been very fond of this work, finding the long third movement - a set of variations - rather prolix and disconnected. It is in four movements to allow for the longer slower one. This the composer described in the Lyrita notes as “introspective”. It is preceded by what I once heard described as a ‘plinky-plonky’ scherzo in varying uneven time signatures. In truth I prefer Lyrita’s warmer recorded sound and the composer’s lighter touch in this movement. The finale I do like especially in Lane’s account. Details of the orchestration are audible as never before. Funnily enough, with its complex dance-like textures, it reminded at times of Darius Milhaud. There is little to chose between the performances but Lane and Shelley take a minute longer over the slow movement, which as I said, drags somewhat anyway.
From the same busy period comes the Sinfonia concertante
in the somewhat surprising key of F sharp major. The Stravinsky influence is at its strongest in the first movement, with its nervous repeated chords. In it I hear the Symphony in Three Movements
which also has a piano obbligato role. This should not be too surprising as Williamson intended this work to be his Second Symphony. If you hear chant-like melodies in this movement it should also be said that the original titles of the movements were ‘Gloria in excelsis’, ‘Salve Regina’ and so on. In fact this melody is also another tone row, which is again inverted for the central Andante
. The last movement is an exciting rondo.
This recording project proved to be the first airing for the three movement Piano Concerto No. 4
. It’s a tremendous piece and the most compact of all the works here. It’s given the key of D major but the two outer Allegros are quite dissonant and it’s difficult actually to pinpoint any key. These allegros are typical of the style we have come to know: quite aggressive and percussive with accents placed on unexpected beats. That said, in the middle ‘Andante piacevole’ a beautiful almost romantic melody reminds us how good the composer was at finding a memorable tune. This movement does not lack tension and builds into quite a climax before fading back on itself. This is really enjoyable but my only criticism is that with such busy textures the recording could have been acoustically clearer.
The performances are terrific and the whole enterprise is highly recommendable. It should be supported by anyone who has an interest in 20th
century British music.
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