I am delighted that Hyperion has undertaken this project. Malcolm Williamson’s work, uneven though it is, is underrated and still far too little known. This set brings together his four piano concertos, that for two pianos and the Sinfonia concertante in F sharp minor.
Piano Concerto No 1 in A major dates from 1957-58 and is really quite conventional, with its tinkling first movement and rumbustious finale, of no particular distinction, but the central 'Andantino' shows beautifully Williamson’s mysterious ‘nocturnal’ style, something he would exploit magically in his later Concerto for two pianos and string orchestra, which is what follows. This work was written in 1971 and has been a favourite of mine since I first heard it (together with concertos by Sculthorpe and Edwards) on a recording from 1983 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and performed by the composer and Simon Campion—now re-released and available directly from ABC. It’s a very Bartókian work, certainly, but it has Williamson’s own brand of energetic drive, and is also structurally extremely tight, based entirely on one note row. Though its tone is predominantly nocturnal, the finale works towards the light and ends with a surprising bang.
Piano Concerto No 2 in F sharp minor, scored for string orchestra, dates from only two years after the first, but this time shows what the composer could really do. It was written in only eight days, and is positively driven. Carolyn Philpott’s excellent booklet note describes well its eclectic character, but it is, like the Concerto for two pianos, structurally tight (it is monothematic) and coherent. Concerto No 3 in E fiat major was written for John Ogdon in 1962, so it is chronologically close to both the earlier concertos. Unlike them, however, it is in four movements, though once again essentially monothematic. I don’t find the opening 'Toccata' hugely convincing—it's in Williamson’s most Australian mode, but seems to miss the mark in not being melodically distinctive enough. The teasingly angular 'Allegro' that follows is far more rewarding, but once again it is the slow movement, the longest, that stands out. It’s a set of variations, but is effectively a slow burn to a sudden metamorphosis to unexpected grandeur at just under halfway through, this in turn interrupted by a soliloquy (not quite a cadenza, I think) that leads, in unsettling alternations of floating dissonances and warm consonance, to the strangest evaporation of an ending imaginable. So bizarre and original is this movement, in fact, that I wanted to hear it again immediately. After this, the finale was bound to disappoint—undigested chunks of neo-classical Stravinsky float about in a consommé of undistinguished jolliness.
The Sinfonia concertante is scored for piano, three trumpets and string orchestra, and fits alongside all three of the piano concertos chronologically, having been written between 1958 and 1962. Stravinsky and Bartók again come to mind, though a closer parallel in some ways might be Respighi. It was originally intended to be a symphony, and each movement has devotional titles in Latin. It is correspondingly solemn and even ritualistic in places, though the trumpets are used for rather more than ‘fanfare’ work, making a particularly interesting contribution, in terms of instrumental colour, to the middle movement, another enigmatic meditation. The buzzing final movement is also impressive.
This is the first recording of Piano Concerto No 4 in D major, written much later than the others, in 1993-94, and thus after the composer’s much-publicized case of writer’s block. It must be said that it does not represent precisely a stylistic advance on, or even a change from, the earlier works, but it contains much beauty, the slow movement here being particularly elegiac in tone, and it is, as always, expertly scored. The finale, too, manages to transcend the chugging perpetual motion one comes to expect, alternating energy with reflection.
Performances are very good indeed (though the recorded sound is perhaps a little diffuse), 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.