Once riding on a wave of popularity, Malcolm Williamson (1931 -2003, Australian born but resident in London for the major part of his life) has slipped from view. So Hyperion’s two-CD set of the complete piano concertos comes as a useful reminder of a brilliantly lightweight talent, but also of limitations. Carolyn Philpott’s necessarily detailed notes (with assistance from Howard Shelley and Simon Campion) tell us that Williamson was at one time the most commissioned composer in Britain; his music, by his own admission, ‘fundamentally tonal, above all lyrical and reflecting the brashness of the cities rather than the bush or deserts of Australia’.
Yet while buoyed up by such enthusiasm, I feel that the piano concertos, while interesting at one level, are a let-down at another. True, 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. Even here, though, a touch of modernity for the masses hovers over its volatility: effective, but rejoicing in detachment rather than more personal virtues. 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; and even in the Sinfonia concertante, a combination of piano, three trumpets and string orchestra, there is only a minimal advance in the idiom.
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.