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Williams sy1 NI6432
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Adrian Williams (b. 1956)
Symphony No 1 (2020)
Chamber Concerto: Portrait of Ned Kelly (1998)
English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods
rec. 2021, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI6432 [70]

Where better to learn about Adrian Williams than through a profile of him by Christopher Thomas and an interview with the composer?  A list of works can also be found at that page. There is also the composer’s own website.

Early on in his teens, Williams worked with Lennox Berkeley. There is much else to tell but I will limit myself to two salient points: Williams has been closely associated with Raphael Wallfisch for whom he wrote a Cello Concerto in 2008; for the Amsterdam string orchestra Williams arranged versions of An Die ferne geliebte and of Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad. These were very much with Thomas Hampson in mind.

From 2019 until 2021 he was the John McCabe Composer in Association for the English Symphony Orchestra. The symphony - one of the composer’s longest duration pieces - bears a dedication to Kenneth Woods ‘for giving me hope’. The fact that it runs substantially almost 50 minutes in a world noted for being inimical or indifferent to large-scale pieces from contemporary composers is testimony to the level of hope instilled in Woods.  The Symphony’s writing took some three years. To be treasured is that the work’s recording here is directed by the dedicatee conducting the orchestra Williams had in active contemplation for the work.

The Symphony is tonal but often overwrought and densely woven. There are some late Sibelian echoes in the fabric from time to time. The first movement’s long singing lines are cut across by violence from brass and percussion. This is indeed violence; no mere petulance. When this element is played out - the mood becomes restful and becalmed. The second movement is a fairly short and hyperactive Scherzando. Before it is over and done with Williams makes common cause (no doubt unwittingly) with the sort of stamping downward curving figures to be found in Panufnik’s Sinfonia Elegiaca and woodwind caprices that echo Stravinsky’s Firebird. The third movement oscillates between demonic Mahlerian passages and poignantly moving writing especially from 7:00 onwards. The composer writes that “its slow movement [was] inspired by the distressing media coverage of the wild fires in Australia and the terrible loss of life.” This is not to reflect the firestorms themselves but the wretched devastation of the land and of the soul. This struck me as the most heartfelt movement of the four. The finale is surreal - which is not to say dreamy. It is intensely Romantic and reflective for much of the time but has its episodes of ecstatic upswelling. If we are looking for similarities (my usual low-brow game and one I cannot resist), then I detect La Mer and the delicious complexity of 1940s Martinu with bell sounds evoked by the orchestral piano. Remarkably, the work concludes with a positive confident simplicity, all tension resolved.

The Chamber Concerto is said by the composer to reflect Ned Kelly’s ‘exploits’ and grew from Williams’ friendship with the Australian painter, Sidney Nolan. It hardly matters but frankly I cannot detect the Kelly aspect. What I hear is a single movement Stravinskian piece that is riven, dissolute, chaotic and in mercurially busy crystalline motion. There’s a feral jungle dance at 5:25. At 09:00 the maelstrom of sound begins to draw breath and becomes more of a largo than a truculent vivace. This blizzard of sounds from 11 players and 14 instruments (doubling) leaves you reeling. It was written for the Brunel Ensemble conducted by Christopher Austin.

He has written a lot but now I would very much like to hear Williams’ Thomas Hardy-based tone poem Tess (1982). I note that he does not list this work at his website among ‘selected listening’. I see that Williams worked with Carl Davis whose music for the BBCTV adaptation of “The Mayor of Casterbridge” in the early 1980s, is amongst Davis’s finest inspirations.

The disc booklet comprises the usual artist profiles but naturally leads off with essays on the two works in the composer’s own words and in those of the conductor. Ken Woods and the expanded forces of the ESO (whose personalia are listed in the booklet) give every sign of plumbing the measure of this otherwise unfamiliar music.

The generosity of the Trust established in the name of the composer Steven R Gerber (1948-2015) seems to have been decisive in the funding of this disc. I should add that Gerber’s orchestral works can be heard via three labels: Koch, Chandos and Arabesque.

The English Symphony Orchestra’s 21st Century Symphony Project is being pursued by the discreetly ever-productive Nimbus and principally through Kenneth Woods. We have already had instalments in the form of Matthew Taylor’s symphonies 4 and 5 and 9 and Philip Sawyers’ Symphony 8 (NI6353) and Violin Concerto (review). There’s more of Taylor and Sawyers to be found on Nimbus and elsewhere. Adrian Williams now joins the Project in emphatic and substantial style.

Rob Barnett

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