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Hyperion Records

CDA68011/2 - Williamson: The Complete Piano Concertos
Piano (2002) by Glen Preece (b1957)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA68011/2

Recording details: Various dates
Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Produced by Ben Connellan
Engineered by Veronika Vincze
Release date: March 2014
DISCID: 750C9A09 850EB40A
Total duration: 116 minutes 30 seconds

'The First Concerto’s mournful opening before a burst into hyperactive chatter makes an attractive start, its second subject as accessible as you could wish … in the 1971 Concerto for two pianos and strings, where Piers Lane is joined by Howard Shelley, everything is whipped up into an outwardly exhilarating but impersonal blend. The ghosts of Ravel, Prokofiev and Shostakovich hover close to the surface … what is memorable is Lane’s playing. Whether dazzling or reflective, he shows a total empathy for Williamson. He is superbly partnered by Shelley and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Sound and balance are outstanding, and Hyperion’s presentation is both lavish and informative' (Gramophone) » More

'The late Malcolm Williamson may have had his unruly side, but he was vastly and variously gifted; it is high time the best of his teeming output was revalued. Here we have all four of his numbered piano concertos—No 4 is given its first airing on CD—plus the two-piano Concerto in A minor and the Sinfonia Concertante with its piano obbligato, collected together for the first time. Piers Lane is the tireless soloist, crisply percussive or touchingly lyrical as required, and Howard Shelley conducts with efficiency and conviction' (BBC Music Magazine) » More
PERFORMANCE
RECORDING

'Performances are very good indeed … and Piers Lane and Howard Shelley are persuasive advocates for this music (Shelley is also the second pianist in the Concerto for two pianos). Anyone who is interested in Australian music should, of course, acquire this disc, but I sincerely hope that it will also have a much wider impact and help to reinstate Williamson’s work in the concert repertoire' (International Record Review) » More

'Master of the Queen’s Music from 1975 until his death in 2003—a post that becomes free again this month—Australian-born composer Malcolm Williamson left a body of work scarcely performed today … his six freewheeling piano concertos are often reminiscent of Poulenc, sometimes of Bernstein … a box of surprises' (The Independent on Sunday) » More

'Australian-born but UK-domiciled Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003) was once the most commissioned composer of his time … he is little played now and few discs devoted to his music seem readily available either here or down under. This two-disc set from Hyperion makes handsome amends in collating all his piano concertos, composed between 1957 and 1994. The solo parts demand virtuosity and energy in equal measure, and Piers Lane sparkles inexhaustibly … compulsively listenable … an absorbing and highly entertaining experience' (International Piano) » More

'Williamson is a fascinating composer who wrote temperamental music without any hint of academia in its bloodstream. This very special and extremely attractive set will further enhance his standing. Superb music and music-making' (MusicWeb International) » More

'Just what the musical doctor ordered! A very welcome chance to extend our appreciation of a terrific if underrated composer … this is marvellous stuff, music of dazzling invention, disarming wit (and not the sort you tire of), generosity of spirit and a lust for life (although, sadly, Williamson’s last years were wracked with illnesses). Admirers of Bartók’s and Prokofiev’s piano concertos will find much here to enjoy, so too those who relish song, dance, irony and a big heart, and a composer capable of being acerbic and romantic in equal measure. To all concerned with the making of this release, take an award … no, take several' (ClassicalSource.com) » More

'Le Concerto pour deux pianos et cordes (1971), instaure une ambiance davantage tendue et moderniste : rythmes acérés, cordes plus froides, mélodies assez heurtées … étrange Lento semblant venir tout droit des Premiers hommes dans la Lune de H.G. Wells; les harmonies des pianos mêlées aux cordes angéliques dans les aigus rappellent Messiaen … défendu avec conviction et sa technique brillante par Piers Lane' (Diapason, France) » More
PERFORMANCE
RECORDING

The Complete Piano Concertos
CD1
Andantino  [6'06]
Poco presto  [5'10]
Allegro con brio  [4'23]
Andante lento  [7'09]
CD2
Toccata: Allegro  [7'02]
Ben allegro  [4'51]
Allegro  [5'39]

A real rarity from Hyperion’s Anglo-Australian artistic collaboration: music by an Australian composer who was once at the heart of the English establishment.

Malcolm Williamson was one of many Australian creative artists who relocated to Britain in the mid-twentieth century. Within a decade of settling in London he had established a reputation as one of the most gifted and prolific composers of his generation. His stature as a leading figure within the British music scene was publicly acknowledged in 1975 when he was appointed to the esteemed post of Master of the Queen’s Music in succession to Sir Arthur Bliss. But today he is almost forgotten and his music virtually never performed.

This double-album set of the complete Piano Concertos is therefore an important document as well as a compendium of deeply appealing music. Williamson wrote with a generosity of emotion and melodic flair rare in the mid-twentieth century, in a forward-looking idiom.

The third concerto is perhaps the masterpiece, a huge and complex work. The fourth was written in 1993/4 and appears here as its world premiere performance and recording.

Piers Lane, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Howard Shelley are the ideal performers of these unjustly neglected works.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Malcolm Williamson (1931–2003) was one of many Australian creative artists who relocated to Britain in the mid-twentieth century, yet few expatriates were able to match the level of success that he achieved abroad. Within a decade of settling in London he had established a reputation as one of the most gifted and prolific composers of his generation and was commonly referred to in the 1960s as the ‘most commissioned composer in Britain’. His stature as a leading figure within the British music scene was publicly acknowledged in 1975 when he was appointed to the esteemed post of Master of the Queen’s Music in succession to Sir Arthur Bliss. Although he lived most of his life in England and drew on various European and British musical influences, Williamson maintained what he identified as a ‘characteristically Australian’ style of composition, stating in the 1960s: ‘Most of my music is Australian in origin … not [inspired by] the bush or the deserts, but the brashness of the cities, the sort of brashness that makes Australians go through life pushing doors marked “pull”.’ Indeed, the ‘forcefulness’, ‘brashness’ and ‘direct warmth of approach’ that Williamson recognized as distinctively Australian qualities are some of the elements that are most characteristic of his personal musical language. While encompassing a broad stylistic range, or—as Williamson preferred to call it—a variety of different ‘densities’, it is the forthright ebullience and emotional directness of his music that sets it apart from that of most other composers who were active in Britain, Europe and Australia in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Born in Sydney, Williamson began playing the piano and composing at an early age and took lessons with the Russian émigré pianist Alexander Sverjensky from the age of twelve. Three years later he was awarded a full scholarship to study the piano, French horn and violin at the New South Wales State Conservatorium, where he met and began composition lessons with its Director, Eugene Goossens. Although Williamson later came to the realization that the training he received in Australia was of a standard equal to the finest offered in the world, his studies under Goossens inspired him to seek further study abroad, and after a trial visit to London with his family in 1950, he settled there permanently in 1953. Soon thereafter he commenced lessons with Elisabeth Lutyens, a pioneer of serial composition in England, and Erwin Stein, a former pupil of Schoenberg and friend of Benjamin Britten. Not surprisingly, Williamson’s compositions from this period show an adherence to serial methods; however, there were a number of other formative influences that encouraged him to modify his compositional approach in the search for a more inclusive idiom.

Williamson’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1953 led to an intensive study of the music of the Middle Ages and pre-Reformation, in particular the music of English composer John Dunstable, and he also developed what would become a lifelong affinity with the religious music and theories of fellow Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen. Other stylistic influences came from the positions of employment that Williamson undertook during the mid- to late 1950s, including working as a piano teacher, a music proofreader, a vocal coach, a nightclub pianist and as a church organist. Each of these musical experiences left its mark on his mature compositional voice and inspired him to develop an inclusive musical language that could communicate instantly with listeners of all ages and backgrounds. Consequently, he began to modify his approach to serialism, which he now viewed as an ‘exclusive’ idiom, and to write music in a language that was fundamentally tonal, and above all lyrical.

During his first decade in Britain Williamson focused primarily on composing music for the instruments he could play himself, producing a large number of solo and concertante works for piano and organ. His ability to perform his own keyboard works (including the piano parts of some of the works on the present recording) was an important component in his rise to prominence as a composer and performer during the 1950s and early 1960s, and he was successful in gaining the attention of influential individuals within London’s musical society, including Benjamin Britten and Adrian Boult, who then became powerful advocates for his music. Most of the concertante works that he composed for the piano were written during this early period, and indeed his considerable skills and prowess as a pianist, as well as a composer, can be gauged from listening to the present collection of concertos, which contain fearsomely difficult parts for the piano soloist.

By the mid-1960s Williamson had extended his compositional range to encompass operatic, symphonic, chamber, solo vocal, choral, religious and educational music, as well as scores for ballet, musical theatre, film, television and radio, and over his lifetime he produced more than 250 works in a wide range of styles and genres. The creative impetus for many of these compositions stemmed from his deep interests in literature, religion, politics and humanitarian issues, and musically they incorporate influences from figures as diverse as Messiaen, Boulez, Stravinsky, Bartók and Britten, as well as from jazz and popular music, especially that of George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern and Leonard Bernstein.

Typically, Williamson’s compositional process began with the construction of a melodic idea, a ‘tiny musical germ’ or ‘melodic fragment’, as he described it, which could then be ‘used and exploited in every possible way and transformed and used within a tonal context’. This compositional approach, which is evident in each of the works included here, allowed Williamson to incorporate a considerable degree of rhythmic, harmonic and textural variety. Although he was frequently criticized in the press for attempting to integrate multifarious stylistic elements into his music, and particularly for juxtaposing the ‘serious’ and the ‘popular’ within a single work, many of his compositions achieved widespread popularity and success with performers and audiences alike.

Williamson’s creative impact was recognized during his lifetime through numerous awards, posts, fellowships and honours; he was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1976, an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1987, awarded the Bernard Heinze Award in 1989, and received honorary doctorates from a number of academic institutions, including Westminster Choir College (Princeton), the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney, and the Open University of Great Britain. He was also deeply proud to be the youngest composer and first Australian to be named Master of the Queen’s Music in the 350-year history of the post.

The Piano Concerto No 1 in A major was composed between 1957 and 1958 and is dedicated to Clive Lythgoe, who gave the first performance of the work at the Cheltenham Festival in July 1958 with the Hallé orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. Lythgoe was contracted to perform the work again the following year at the BBC Proms; however, immediately prior to the event he sustained an arm injury, leaving Williamson with little option but to fulfil the role of soloist himself, which he did with great aplomb. He described the concerto as ‘lightweight’ compared to his other works of the period; indeed, it was among the first tonally oriented works that he produced following his studies with Lutyens.

The first movement, which opens and closes Poco lento, is built upon a single melodic idea that is first introduced by the strings in the slow introduction. In the main Allegro section, this theme is presented in various guises—at first it appears in a lively syncopated passage written for the piano and later it is transformed through the inversion of some of its intervals into a striking, lyrical melody that is passed between various instruments in the orchestra. The same series of pitches is also used as the primary source material for each of the remaining two movements. In the Andantino, the series is used to create a darker, brooding character, while in the lively rondo finale (Poco presto), it appears in the grandiose main theme, which itself reflects Williamson’s exposure to popular music in London’s nightclubs and recalls the tunefulness of his overture Santiago de Espada (1957). Although the concerto is essentially monothematic, the diverse treatment of the initial germinal idea shows Williamson’s ingenuity and his already abundant skills as a melodist and as a writer of challenging, idiomatic music for the piano.

In the Concerto in A minor for two pianos and string orchestra Williamson again employed a series or ‘row’ as a structural device—this time a lengthier one that derives its pitch content from the letters of the names of the two American pianists who premiered the work, Charles H Webb and Wallace Hornibrook. The concerto is in fact dedicated to another duo of American pianists—Alice and Arthur Nagle, who performed the piano duo part in the composer’s In place of belief (with chorus) in Washington in 1971. The concerto was commissioned by the Australia Council and the Astra Chamber Orchestra and was premiered in Melbourne in 1972 by Webb and Hornibrook with the Astra Chamber Orchestra and conductor George Logie-Smith.

The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, is in 5/4 time and shows the influence of Bartók in its folk-like rhythms and in the texture of its main theme, with its busy string accompaniment and octaves in the piano line. The ‘cipher-row’, as Geoffrey Álvarez terms it in his insightful analytical essay on the work (‘Malcolm’s Dancing Numbers: a study of Malcolm Williamson’s Concerto for two pianos and string orchestra’, 2008; see freespace.virgin.net/geoffrey.alvarez/malcolmsdancingnumbers.pdf), is heard in full in the first entry of Piano I and is subsequently used to form a basis for the entire concerto. It appears in each movement in an intriguing array of forms and, along with a modal ascending and descending scalic theme, creates unity from one movement to the next. In the first movement, the cipher-row is developed into an elaborate canon, while in the central Lento movement, which Williamson described as ‘plainsong-esque’, it is employed in the manner of a cantus firmus. In the final movement, a lively and percussive Allegro vivo, it is heard first in the bass line as an accompaniment to a new theme, then in a contrasting chorale-like passage, before bringing the work to a definitive conclusion when it is condensed into a final accented chord.

Williamson composed the Piano Concerto No 2 in F sharp minor over a period of just eight days in late 1960 for a competition requiring a concerto for piano and string orchestra sponsored by the Department of Music and the Choral Society of the University of Western Australia. To his delight, it won a prize and in May 1962 it was premiered by Michael Brimer and the University of Western Australia String Orchestra conducted by Frank Callaway. At this time Williamson’s career as a pianist was at its height, and he subsequently performed the work himself in venues across the world. He described the concerto as ‘an overtly Australian work aiming at spontaneity and vigour rather than profundity’, and in his preface to the revised score he conceded: ‘For me this concerto is a serious parody, a necessary reaction at the time of my First Symphony, my Sinfonia concertante and other works of a more serious interior nature. I mean no parody of any classic, of mediæval music or even a parody of the parodists; it is a parody of myself.’ The original version is recorded here.

Although fundamentally a monothematic work, this concerto incorporates a range of musical styles, or ‘densities’, that can be seen as broadly representative of Williamson’s eclectic musical language. His encounters with the music of George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, for example, are evident in the exuberant outer movements (marked Allegro con brio and Allegro con spirito, respectively) with their lively, syncopated rhythms and catchy melodies. Simultaneously, the crisp, transparent textures and rhythmic inflections in these movements reflect the influence of Stravinsky and Bartók. In fact, one of the themes in the final movement quotes the finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird directly, a particularly apt borrowing given that the concerto was composed exactly fifty years after the ballet was written and premiered. In contrast, the central Andante lento movement is more introspective and reflective; it opens with a solemn canon for the strings before ushering in a poignant chant-like theme, which was perhaps inspired by the Jewish heritage of the work’s dedicatee, Elaine Goldberg, a talented pianist and the cousin of Williamson’s wife, Dolly.

The Piano Concerto No 3 in E flat major was composed just two years after No 2 and also had its premiere in Australia (in June 1964 by John Ogdon, the dedicatee, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Joseph Post). The work was commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the Australasian Performing Right Association and was later made into the ballet Have steps will travel, which was choreographed for the National Ballet of Canada by John Alleyne and first performed in 1988. The third concerto is the largest—and in many respects the most complex—of Williamson’s piano concertos. He chose to write it in four movements in order to avoid scherzo-like figurations in the outer movements and to balance out the substantial slow movement, which he felt would otherwise ‘up-end its neighbours’.

The thematic material of the entire concerto derives from the interval of a perfect fifth and a selection of the intervallic relationships that fall within this interval. This creates a coherent relationship between each of the movements, helping to fuse together materials of widely disparate styles. The opening Toccata, marked Allegro, is so-named because of its motoric rhythms and the varied types of keyboard touch required of the pianist. It is in the traditional bravura style associated with the form and features two clearly contrasted themes that are in themselves related intervallically. The virtuosic second movement is a brilliant scherzo, marked Allegro (Allegretto), that features unconventional time signatures such as 11/16 and 10/16 and shifting divisions of the bar. In contrast, the slow third movement (Molto largo e cantando) does not stray from its basic 3/2 time signature. It is cast as a set of variations on a gentle cantilena theme played at the outset by the piano, with a cadenza inserted before the final variation. The finale (Ben allegro) is again rhythmically elaborate, but is more obviously melodic and extroverted in character than the first movement, as—in Williamson’s words—‘the piano engages a more buoyant orchestra in a combative dance’.

Williamson composed the Sinfonia concertante in F sharp major between 1958 and 1962 and originally intended it to be his Symphony No 2 (Laudes); however, the concertante-like nature of the solo piano and trumpet trio pitted against the string orchestra, as well as the comparative brevity of the work, led to a reconsideration of the title. As with the first symphony, each movement of the proposed second originally carried a religious superscription on the manuscript: ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’, ‘Salve Regina’, and ‘Gloria Patri’, respectively. Williamson dedicated the work to his wife, Dolly, and it was premiered in May 1964 in Glasgow by pianist Julian Dawson and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar. One of Williamson’s more ‘serious’ or introspective works, it is characteristic of his compositional language in its employment of serial devices within a tonal framework, as well as in its tight thematic organization and rhythmic vitality.

The sonata-form first movement opens with a chant-like motif which is played by the piano in octaves and supported by sustained chords from the trumpets. This motif, which sounds out the syllabic pattern of the original subtitle ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’, contains the principal material for the entire work. The strings join the texture in the percussive section that follows, which bears a striking similarity to the ‘Danse des adolescentes’ from Stravinsky’s Le sacre du Printemps (1911–13) in its emphatic off-beats and static harmonies. The chant-like theme is inverted to form the quieter second subject and in the recapitulation the thematic material of the exposition appears in reverse order. The slow movement, Andante lento, is in 3/8 throughout and presents its material in one lengthy melodic arc—beginning with muted strings and gradually building to a powerful climax for the full ensemble, before decreasing in volume and intensity to bring the movement to a tranquil conclusion. The finale, marked Presto, is the longest movement and is essentially a rondo, with variations to its recurring material. Like the first movement, it is highly rhythmic and reiterates the tonality of F sharp, as well as making reference to the ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ motif. Following a restless piano cadenza, the work draws to a close with an extended coda, in which the ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ motif again reigns supreme.

Williamson commenced work on the Piano Concerto No 4 in D major in 1993—more than thirty years after finishing his third solo piano concerto—and it was completed in the following year. The first three solo piano concertos follow a pattern of tonalities separated by descending minor thirds: A, F sharp and E flat (enharmonically D sharp). Had the composer stuck to this pattern for the fourth concerto, it would have been in C (whether major or minor); however, in the event, Williamson cast his Piano Concerto No 4 in D major as a tribute to Dolly Wingate, who died in the late 1980s. Dolly was the sister of the renowned pianist Marguerite Wolff, for whom the concerto was written and to whom it is dedicated. Marguerite died in 2011 without having performed the work. The current recording provides its first public airing.

The first movement, Allegro, is highly rhythmic and again reminiscent of Stravinsky in its percussive chords and dissonant sound world, with accents commonly occurring on unexpected beats in the bar. Such passages are offset by contrasting phrases of unrestrained lyricism. The interval of a fourth, a favourite of Williamson (and particularly appropriate given the concerto’s number), dominates this and the remaining two movements. The central Andante piacevole is notable for its attractive main theme, which is introduced in a brief germinal fragment played by the woodwinds, brass and percussion before it is taken up by the piano and given a full statement—complete with embellishments—to an accompaniment of triplet quavers. The movement gradually increases in intensity, before drawing to a serene close, and is followed by a brief finale, Allegro vivo con fuoco, which returns to the high energy and chromaticism of the opening movement.

Carolyn Philpott © 2014
The author would like to thank Simon Campion and Howard Shelley for their assistance in the preparation of these notes.

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