Immigration is very much in the news these days but it’s certainly not a new phenomenon. In the musical world composers and artists have moved their home-base from state to state for years under personal, economic, social or political pressure. Nostalgia and longing for home have almost become clichés. The traffic to and fro between Australia and the UK has included such figures as Arthur Benjamin, Edgar Bainton, Eugene Goossens and Percy Grainger. There are plenty of other examples including India (John Foulds), Canada (Healey Willan) and South Africa (W H Bell and Eril Chisholm).
This brings us to Malcolm Williamson. He was born in Sydney and studied music there. He moved to the UK in 1950 and 25 years later was sufficiently part and parcel of the English scene to be made Master of the Queen’s Music. He held this office until 2003. He is of the so-called Cheltenham generation of composers, active in the 1950s, whose works featured in that town’s music festival. It was a disparate group and the fortunes of those composers have varied wildly with some of them having made very little progress—principally Peter Racine Fricker—but there are others. As for Williamson, his music was performed during his lifetime although repeat performances after the premières were not exactly numerous—nothing like Britten or Tippett. Some of it was recorded during the days of LP and much of that has made it onto CD with some works recorded for the first time. Rather like Frank Bridge, Williamson’s style shifted but in his case the changes were at work all the time. He could write a ‘killer’ tune and adorn it in gleamingly romantic orchestration but he could just as easily indulge twelve-tone tendencies. His gift for gloriously lachrymose sentiment can be heard across these two discs.
Hyperion and Piers Lane and his collaborators have grasped a singular project and one that is satisfyingly rounded. The way was left open for it by the two Chandos orchestral discs (reviews here and here) which are complemented by the Hyperion. While we are looking for harmonious complements we should not overlook ABC Classics’ complete set of the solo piano music (review). After this we get into a measure of duplication. There are two Lyrita CDs. The Piano Concerto No 3 is on SRCD280 but it’s not really a conflict as the soloist is the composer. On SRCD281 we get the Sinfonia Concertante where the pianist is Martin Jones.
The Piano Concerto No 1 was written at the end of the 1950s. It’s dedicated to Clive Lythgoe who premiered it at the 1958 Cheltenham Festival. Older hands might recall Lythgoe for his two Philips LPs of early American piano music: Griffes, MacDowell, Robert Dett and Ives. Lane and the Tasmanians with their accustomed conductor, the pianist Howard Shelley revel in this music which holds nothing back and is sentimental in the manner of Williamson’s compatriot Percy Grainger. There’s a modicum of Rachmaninov here and a touch of Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 2 there.
For the tumultuously cascading Double Piano Concerto Lane is joined by Howard Shelley who also conducts the Tasmanian orchestra. The latter have won their spurs … and more … with the huge and glorious ABC Australian Composers series. They have also worked with Hyperion on several of the Romantic Piano Concerto volumes. We are told that the music 'derives its pitch content from the letters of the names of the two American pianists who premièred the work, Charles H Webb and Wallace Hornibrook' although it is dedicated to another American duo: Alice and Arthur Nagle.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 is not new to record. It was issued on an EMI LP (EMD 5520) in the 1970s. The soloist was Gwenneth Pryor with the English Chamber Orchestra under Yuval Zaliouk. The other items were the Double Piano Concerto and the Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell. Strangely, to the best of my knowledge it has never been reissued on CD; that’s strange, really, as it would have been a natural for the late Richard Itter’s Lyrita CDs of the mid 2000s. It’s a short work—very much to the point and shot through with troubled dark energy. The central movement is a cool pool of contemplation. It sounds rather like something by Goossens and has an almost Iberian cool—a sort of 'Nights in the Gardens of Cairns'. The finale is all shivering excitement and with a balletic sense of delicate humour. Lane is ‘on his toes’ again. Williamson composed the concerto in eight days in late 1960.
The Piano Concerto No 3 gets better every time I hear it. In comparison with the Lyrita recording by the composer, Lane and Shelley bring out the singing lyrical side. It’s a work full of the most life-enhancing galvanic energy. The crashing and crunching chords reminded me of Messiaen when I reviewed the Lyrita CD but that echo was completely absent from my listening sessions here. The four movements encompass motile rhythmic invention and melodic fluency, clattering and cataclysmic martellato writing, supernal Beethovenian moonlit peace contrasted with very dark ‘voices’ and jazzily sparking and hammer blows contrasted with a reprise of the sentimental glories of the first movement. The delightful melodies here are very memorable. I found myself whistling them well after I had finished listening. The writing recalls the piano concertos of Malcolm Arnold and Andrzej Panufnik. Interestingly, this concerto was composed for John Ogdon.
I always found the Sinfonia Concertante in the 2 LP EMI set (SLS 5085, reissued by Lyrita) rather grey and faceless; not so here. I should have persisted. The first movement indulges Williamson’s trademark pounding urgency and ruthless tension but with bell sounds woven in. The second movement is indomitable and relentless while the last is more thoughtful. It was at first intended as his Symphony No 2 (Laudes).
The last Piano Concerto is a very late work. Again it tracks through episodes of tempestuously hammering and exciting keyboard activity and contrasts them with sweetly contemplative pages that tread a very vertiginous route between touching and saccharine. It was written for and dedicated to Marguerite Wolff and this is its first public appearance.
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. I hope it will encourage a major project like the huge Mass of Christ The King and ambitious but more compact works such as the Dag Hammarskjöld Portrait, the Josip Broz Tito tribute and the wonderfully colourful opera, Our Man in Havana which deserves to share a Covent Garden season with Alan Bush’s similarly Caribbean-orientated and similarly brilliant The Sugar Reapers.
If your interest has been stirred—and it should be—see also Paul Conway’s fine and detailed article about Williamson set out as a 70th birthday tribute and the related select list of works and photo gallery. A biography of the composer is reviewed here.
This single-width double set is a real and rewarding rarity capitalising on Hyperion’s established Anglo-Australian collaboration. It should do more than any other entry in the catalogue to restore Williamson closer to the central core. Wonderful music.