It seems that
Williamson’s music, though rather well served during the LP
era, went through its purgatory during the last years of the
composer’s life, and is now drawing some renewed interest.
Chandos have launched a series of recordings of Williamson’s
orchestral works; and now comes this generously filled disc
with some substantial and rarely heard works for unaccompanied
chorus, none of which has previously been committed to CD.
Some may remember
that long-deleted recording of the Symphony for Voices
released many years ago in one of the pioneering discs made
under the auspices of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (originally
by EMI and later re-issued as Argo ZRG 758). Though a comparatively
early work, the Symphony for Voices already
display a number of characteristics that one has come to regard
as Williamson hallmarks. Listen especially for his typical
blend of modernism and tradition, at times clearly indebted
to Britten - just listen to the second or the sixth movements
of the English Eccentrics Choral Suite as a
good example of Britten’s influence. His feel for effective
word-setting is much aided by his richly melodic writing.
Though not a symphony in the complete meaning of the word,
the piece is laid-out in four movements along the traditional
pattern (moderate-slow-fast-moderate), preceded by a long
introductory Invocation set for solo alto. The words are drawn
from poems by the Australian poet James McAuley. The outer
movements Terra Australis and New Guinea evoke
a beautifully poetic vision of Australia and New Guinea (“Bird-shaped
island”), whereas the inner movements Jesus, the music
of which briefly hints at plainchant, and Envoi with
its somewhat more angular writing function as slow movement
and Scherzo respectively. The final movement ends with a beautiful,
appeased, almost mystical coda (“Splendour, simplicity, joy
such as were seen/In one who now rests by his mountain road”).
I had not heard this work for quite a long time, and I was
really delighted to encounter it again, almost afresh. I was
impressed by the real beauty of much of this music.
English Eccentrics on a libretto by Geoffrey
Dunn based on Edith Sitwell’s eponymous book was completed
in 1964. The composer drew from this a short choral suite,
“depicting a miscellany of strange and fascinating characters”
(Lewis Mitchell). Incidentally, some of the music for English
Eccentrics also found its way into the Violin Concerto.
As mentioned earlier in this review, the music as heard in
the various movements of the choral suite is at times overtly
reminiscent of Britten, but none the worse for that.
Sentinel is a short choral work setting words from
Tennyson’s In Memoriam commissioned by the Scunthorpe
Festival and written in memory of a young man killed by a
strike-breaking vehicle at the time of electricity industry
strikes at that time. For all its brevity it remains an eloquent
piece of music.
Requiem for a Tribe Brother was composed when
the composer heard of the death of a young Aboriginal friend.
It was written for the Joyful Company of Singers who gave
the first performance in 1992 and sang it at Williamson’s
funeral in 2003. It is a deeply-felt work, mostly of meditative
nature, although with enough contrast to keep the music going
almost effortlessly for half an hour. It is an impressive
achievement with a lot of very fine music, some of it belonging
among the finest he ever penned. Listen for example to the
Offertory [track 15] or the almost operatic Pie
The Joyful Company
of Singers’ immaculate performances are pure joy from first
to last and they are most naturally recorded. The only reservation
about this otherwise magnificent release is the absence of
the words, except – a bit ironically, I think – those from
the Requiem Mass. Those who still have the old recording of
Symphony for Voices will of course find part
of the solution, but it nevertheless is a pity to be left
in the dark as far as Love, the Sentinel and
English Eccentrics Choral Suite are concerned.
But let no-one be deterred by this minor reservation, for
here is a splendid disc of splendid music superbly sung.
(USA sales only)