Malcolm Williamson. The Complete Piano Concertos

Piers Lane piano, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Howard Shelley conductor
Classical, New Music
2 CDs, Hyperion CDA6801/2
Reviewed by , August 1st, 2014

Malcolm Benjamin Graham Christopher Williamson, CBE, AO, 1931-2003, composer of more than 250 works ranging from opera through to ballet, film and television scores, from symphonic, chamber and solo works to music for children to perform (he called them “Cassations”) was the only non-English and the youngest composer ever to be appointed to England’s most illustrious music post, Master of the Queen’s Musik. And the only one not to have been knighted.

Early studies at the Sydney Conservatorium gave him good grounding in piano, violin and French horn, as well as composition with Eugene Goossens as his tutor. According to the cover notes by Carolyn Philpott, Williamson spoke highly of his early training.

Composer Malcolm Williamson

Composer Malcolm Williamson

Moving to London in 1953, encouraged by Goossens, he began studies with Elizabeth Luytens and Erwin Stein, bringing him into the charmed circle around Benjamin Britten and Adrian Boult, both becoming friends and advocates for his work.

While earning his keep in a number of odd jobs – church organist, nightclub pianist – he converted to Roman Catholicism.

Philpott lists a number of other composers who have influenced Williamson’s work. Some listeners may catch a sniff of Messaien in the slow movement of the A minor concerto (for two pianos, Shelley swapping baton for keyboard).

The following “Allegro vivo” is a cracker, larded with jazz patterns (Gershwin?), and the “Allegro con spirit” of the F#  minor is not only very jazzy but also laugh-out-loud funny.

Overall, the MotQM appears more comfortable with fast than with slow.

Pianist Piers Lane, Photo by Eric Richmond

Pianist Piers Lane, Photo by Eric Richmond

The recordings on two discs are not set out in chronological order. Without having the scores for confirmation, my impression was of more spontaneity in those written between 1957 and 1962, viz A major (57-58), F# minor (60), E flat major (62) – a strangely disturbed and disturbingly indecisive “molto largo e cantando” for this one. From the same period, Sinfonia concertante in F # minor  with trio of trumpets Yoram Levy, Mark Bain and Martin Phillipson and strings.

The most recent, and to my mind the most assured, the most meaty, is the D major, 1993-4, getting its first recording. Less of the Bartoky crunchy chord trademarks of the earlier works, more attention to unravelling themes, not just stating them. A surprisingly romantic, Rachmaninov tinted “Andante piacevole”; traces of his chosen faith in a refreshingly concise “Allegro vivo con fuoco”.

The discs are highly recommended, and not just for patriotism’s sake.  Lucky Taswegians. Their Federation Hall is obviously a fine recording studio. Piers Lane found the piano parts “fearsomely difficult” but he and Shelley treat the scores with unfaiing respect, however wayward.

They and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra have done sterling service to a composer whose main failing might have been to write too much – not exercising a more critical eye on himself, not noting Kingsley Amis’s dictum “more is nearly always worse”, and the current mantra”less is more”. Britten could have taught him how.

Conductor Howard Shelley also plays piano for the Concerto for Two PIanos

Conductor Howard Shelley also plays piano for the Concerto for Two PIanos

One caveat. Do not try to listen to all six at one sitting. The similarities may overwhelm the differences. A little bit of early Williamson goes a long way.

P.S. For the 1970 Adelaide Festival of Arts, Anthony Roberts directed Williamson’s Julius Caesar Jones.  I was his musical director. The 13 –piece band of the original score being beyond our budget, I called in another pianist and a percussion player to use their skills and imaginations in expanding the piano score. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears were also in town for recitals and the whole trilogy of the Church Parables with the English Opera Group. They came to a performance of JCJ and said all the right things. Subsequently I had a letter from Malcolm, with a favorable report from the Great Ones, and suggesting I should publish my “arrangement”. I was not game to tell him we had just made it up.

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