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Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931-2003)
Complete works for piano

Piano Sonata No. 1 (1956) [11.01]
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1957) [19.55]
Piano Sonata No. 3 (1958) [12.12]
Piano Sonata No. 4 (1959) [8.30]
Five Preludes (1968) [13.45]
Haifa Watercolours (1974) [10.42]
The Bridge that Van Gogh Painted and the French Camargue (1975) [9.12]
Variations [11.30]
Ritual of Admiration [4.05]
Travel Diaries - Sydney (1960-61) [10.23]
Travel Diaries - Naples (1960-61) [8.30]
Travel Diaries - London (1960-61) [9.45]
Travel Diaries - Paris (1960-61) [9.56]
Travel Diaries - New York (1960-61) [9.49]
Hymna Titu (1984) [9.31]
Antony Gray (piano)
rec. 3-10 Mar 1998, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo Centre, Sydney
ABC CLASSICS 472 902-2 [3CDs: 45.11+58.38+56.45]


Malcolm Williamson’s solo piano music is mostly from the 1950s and early 1960s after which much of his time and inspiration was taken up with orchestral pieces. The four concertante works for piano and orchestra date from the same era.

What immediately strikes you from the tracklisting is that Williamson does not suffer from prolixity. There are no windy and pompous adagios or unrelieved slabs of sound. Even the four sonatas range from 8.30 to 19.55 across three movements; apart from the diptychal Fourth.

The First Sonata is plays with dissonance and a gamely jazzy feyness rather like Poulenc or Lambert but with determined incursions from Schoenberg. The music is always in active and does not fall into fallow introspection. The Second Sonata is dedicated to the memory of Gerald Finzi who died in 1956. It was premiered by Robin Harrison and was initially entitled Janua Coeli (‘Gates of Heaven’). Banish any thought of this sounding at all like Finzi; there is no reason why it should. It is tough, serial, angry, though retreating into a steady 'dumpe' in the long Poco Adagio (tr. 2 CD2) with maybe a shading of the glum Bachian Finzi from Fear No More and other Hardy songs. The Third Sonata opens the door to lyricism in a frank and fairly uninhibited way, closer to Poulenc spliced with Bach, and without any real dissonance. Certainly this is well outside Williamson’s serial tendency. The strolling Sonhando central movement juxtaposes Bach and the Dies Irae while the darting spindrift of the finale Brincando (all the movements have Portuguese titles) is a microscopic set of variations. The Fourth Sonata is in two uncompromising movements, typically serial and with dislocational writing disturbing or banishing lyrical lines. That said there is a discernible and intriguingly splintery melody decked out in clamour and confidence in the short final allegro.

The Five Preludes are from 1968 and Cheltenham. They were written for Antonietta Notariello. Their spangled and starlit dissonance, sometimes clangorous and sometimes solipsistic, sounds somewhere between the coordinates of Berners, Sisask, Holst and Schoenberg. The titles (Ships, Towers, Domes, Theatres, Temples) are from Wordsworth's sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’. The Variations are just as tough as the Second Sonata. They were written while Williamson was studying with Elizabeth Lutyens. They have had little concert currency being revived specially for this recording. The Ritual of Admiration is similarly astringent though the imaginative mastery of sentiment and form is stronger here than in the Variations. Ritual was written for Lutyens 'on the occasion of her 70th birthday with love, admiration, gratitude'. It is an impressive piece, evincing real tenderness and emotion (try 2.30 tr. 5 CD2). The Hymna Titu, written in 1984, reeks of Yugoslavian folk music and stands well clear of his serial effusions. It is still peppery. He gave the premiere himself at the Australian Embassy in Belgrade. The work reflects his admiration for Tito. He orchestrated the piece under the title Cortège for a Warrior. It is extremely impressive - in fact the most commanding piece in this anthology.

The Haifa Watercolours comprise ten pictorial and atmospheric miniatures from The Harbour at Sunrise to The Bedouin Shepherd and his Black Mountain Goats to the Harbour at Sunset. Nothing can be found here of the pastoral or romantic British schools. If anything Williamson here sounds like a development of the louche and seedy backstreet gloom of Constant Lambert in the Sonata or Piano Concerto and of Rawsthorne in his Ballade. A Stravinskian alertness lightens the Bedouin Shepherd movement (tr. 14); nothing here of Holst's Beni Mora or even of Glanville-Hicks's Letters from Morocco. This sound something closer to an overwrought version of the de Hartmann miniatures but ‘processed’ by Conlon Nancarrow and even Cage in his Sonatas and Interludes. Composers have been writing such sequences for ages. Look at the Mediterranean Mezzotints of Joseph Holbrooke and Ibert’s Escales.

The Travel Diaries all date from 1960-61 and together with the Haifa and Van Gogh sequences are teaching pieces. They cover a wide range typified by the Sydney set, from a Shostakovich-type charge (CD2 tr.14) to an old style waltz, to a singing lyrical piece worthy of Michael Head (CD2 tr. 15) in Lane Cove and fragrantly strumming A Morning Swim (Ravel flavouring). In Hyde Park one can detect Shostakovich's sardonic smirk. There is a jazzy dislocation in King's Cross. Apart from the absence of jazzy voicings the Naples set traverses the same style-sheets - charming, peppy and, as befits the Italian locale, just a little sentimental indeed almost Sondheim (Blue Grotto - Capri CD3 tr.9). The Tarantella introduces Bach to Rossini - very much a brush of passing shoulders. The London sequence has some sturdy British atmosphere in Busy Shoppers (bustling matchstick characters). St Paul's Cathedral has Finzian gravitas as well as high register piano ‘plinks’ suggesting the heights of the cathedral ceiling - a touch that returns for The Planetarium. The lumbering Thames Barges gives way the ‘fife and drum’ flavours of Along the Mall with its echoes of ‘The British Grenadiers’. The piece makes its farewells with the whirling of Helicopters in the first and last movements. The Paris diaries embrace lyrical pieces such as the fragrantly sentimental Flower sellers at the Place de la Madeleine, the absurdist Gendarme, the skittering Ladies with Poodles teetering on their high heels as their dogs pull them ever forward. There is the rocking motion of the Boatride Down The Seine and the abrupt scalar heartlessness of Eiffel Tower and the powdered wigs of Versailles. The suggestion of French songs can be heard in Customs -Départs. New York is taken as an opportunity to blow away cobwebs with a splintery spiralling blast-cloud of notes in Subway Rush (Bliss would have been fascinated bearing in mind his own set of Conversations which included a portrayal of the London Underground). The Statue of Liberty feels peculiarly French. A bluesy flavour can be detected in Central Park (Riding School) as well as in the soft lyrical Broadway Midnight - a lullaby of Broadway indeed - fragrant with Gershwin and Berlin.

Continuing the vein established in the five Travel Diaries there is The Bridge that Van Gogh Painted and the French Camargue. These ten pieces have the brutish Friendly Bulls on the Highway, the Bach-like delicacy of The Bridge finely picked out and shaded by the consistently sympathetic and insightful Mr Gray. These ‘pictures’ more closely resemble music inspired by sketches rather than by direct observation as in the case of the Wild Horses in the Long Grass. The melodic material here and in the diaries sometimes suggests child's songs and rhymes.

I hope that Antony Gray will be allowed to record the Williamson works for piano and orchestra. There are four piano concertos as well as one for two pianos and orchestra. Indeed an Antony Gray recital of the piano sonatas of Roy Agnew and Dorian Le Gallienne would make an extremely attractive project. These works were known and admired by Williamson. For now we must content ourselves with an impending second Goossens solo piano collection from ABC. The first was reviewed here back in 1999.

Meantime I must pass on Antony Gray's reminder that almost all Williamson's piano music including the concertos were written by the time he was thirty-five.

An adroitly and brilliantly performed collection in which teaching pieces (rich in allusion and often in emotion) meet concert works ranging from the uncompromising serialism of the sonatas 1, 2 and 4 and the Ritual to the triumphant and outstandingly powerful Hymna Titu.


Rob Barnett


Malcolm Williamson was a paradox, and perhaps nothing illustrates this more clearly than his appointment in 1975 to the position of Master of the Queen’s Music. He was inordinately proud of this appointment, not only of itself, but also as being the first non-British composer to hold the post. He was almost unquestioningly loyal to the Royal Family, and a stickler for correct protocol, consulting the appropriate reference books for apposite forms of address for differing ranks of nobility. At the same time he was not prepared for one minute to tolerate pomposity or ostentation, and would turn up to an important premier of one of his works wearing a kaftan, or something else equally ‘inappropriate’ and scandalising. Malcolm adored gossip and scandal, and loved bating the establishment. Many of the remarks which were to get him into trouble were often made completely knowingly, in the awareness that the whole world, and especially the establishment, were saying the same things behind closed doors, but would be horrified (and terrified) if anyone were to say them publicly. Malcolm was not afraid of these people, but perhaps, finally he paid the price of his independent spirit. At the time of his death there is barely a note of his music in the CD catalogues (and yet virtually the entire oeuvre of the most insignificant composers from the renaissance to the present day seems to be available). There is no music of his in the shops, and performances in concert are virtually non-existent. There are perhaps many reasons for this, but the only reason that is not valid is the quality of the music. Williamson will undoubtedly come to be seen as one of the great composers of the twentieth century.

Writing a conventional CV for Williamson is perhaps more difficult than for most people. He was not a conventional man. He had the most wide-ranging interests and enthusiasms; he mixed with royalty and heads of state, and yet worked with the mentally handicapped and underprivileged, feeling as comfortable with a Brazilian street boy as with a bishop. A master of philosophy, literature and comparative religion, but being one of the all-time great raconteurs of salacious gossip and filthy jokes. A devout catholic who also embraced Judaism and aboriginal beliefs, while thoroughly and guiltlessly enjoying the pleasures of the flesh. He spoke several languages fluently and qualified as a medical doctor, but never quite worked out how to turn a tape over. He could be demanding, petulant and childish, but moved to tears, and acts of remarkable generosity, by the sight of undeserved suffering. He also wrote a vast quantity of truly remarkable music. The fact that some of it was in C major, and some of it was uncompromisingly serial was a fact that ultimately served to confound and frustrate his critics. The fact that the public also liked it, at a time when many composers were being almost deliberately anti-populist, was a further offence for which he was not lightly forgiven

As for the conventional aspects of his life; he was born in a generation that produced a quite remarkable batch of eminent Australians, including Joan Sutherland, Geoffrey Parsons, Peter Sculthorpe, John Carmichael, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Barry Tuckwell and Clive James, all of whom have gone on to become international household names, and, almost without exception, who have gone on to make their careers outside Australia. Williamson studied at the Sydney Conservatorium which was then enjoying the benign and highly productive influence of Eugene Goossens, with whom Williamson had composition lessons. He moved to London in 1950, studying with Elizabeth Lutyens and Erwin Stein, as well as absorbing the music of Messiaen, and learning the organ so that he could play it. He supported himself playing the church organ, and also playing jazz and cabaret in a night club, but by the end of the 1950s he was successful enough to become a full-time composer, having also been taken on by Boosey & Hawkes. He was early on championed by Sir Adrian Boult, who played his First Symphony in 1957 – there are very few twenty-six year olds who have had a more auspicious start to their careers. This was followed by commission after commission – a violin concerto for Menuhin, an organ concerto for the Proms, a major organ work for Coventry Cathedral, the Symphony for Voices, The Display for the Australian Ballet, the first three piano concertos (why isn’t the second one of the top ten favourites?), and the operas. Our Man in Havana was first performed at Sadlers Wells in 1963, and it was followed by English Eccentrics, The Happy Prince, Julius Caesar Jones, The Violins of St. Jacques and Lucky Peters’ Journey. He also invented the ‘Cassation’, a mini opera of about ten minute’s duration, which is taught to the audience in the space of about an hour, who then perform it. He was to write ten of these pieces, including one which was to be one of the earliest sympathetic statements on Aboriginal land rights. It was written to be performed in Australia, in full knowledge of the political climate, but Williamson was never to be deflected from doing the right thing. It was these Cassations that were to begin to provoke the ire of the critics and the establishment. They were described variously as ‘trivial’, ‘superficial’ and ‘simplistic’. This was, of course, to miss their point entirely, and Williamson anticipated the concept of interactive music education by some thirty years. Furthermore, the audience at the Last Night of the Proms in 1971 who had to perform ‘The Stone Wall’ (Malcolm would allow no pikers!) certainly seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. He was also to pioneer the use of music therapy with the mentally handicapped.

It was after his appointment as Master of the Queen’s Music that Williamson’s popularity started to wane. In Australia there was often a sense that he had abandoned his native land, and was therefore something of a traitor. This despite regular visits and concert tours to Australia, and a number of major works written specially for Australia, or using Australian subjects or texts – the Requiem for a Tribe Brother was written on the death of a young aboriginal friend. Williamson always maintained that he, and his music, were essentially Australian, ‘Not the bush or the deserts, but the brashness of the cities. The sort of brashness that makes Australians go through life pushing doors marked ‘pull’’. In Britain there was a marked element of resentment that a non-Brit had been appointed to so archetypally British a post, and resentment also that his music was actually enjoyed, remembered and even hummed by the public. There were very few British composers at the time, apart from perhaps Britten, who could claim that level of popularity. Ironically, it was Britten who had recommended Williamson for the royal post. Rumours started spreading that Williamson never finished works on time – a palpably absurd claim given the huge number of works successfully completed on time up to now. Moreover the small number of works that were late were not the fault of the composer. There were crossed lines, cancelled commissions (when a certain flute player suddenly demanded the finished score twelve months before the performance – the BBC advised Williamson to refuse), and ill health. It is also unlikely that there has been a composer in history who has not missed the odd deadline. The other rumour, and one that was perhaps to prove more damaging, was concerning Williamson’s alleged drink problem. Malcolm liked a drink as well as the next bloke, and many a hilarious hour has been spent in the company of Malcolm and any number of bottles. However the true culprit of the rumour was a mild stroke, suffered around 1975, from which he made a complete recovery, apart from the fact that he was left with slightly slurred speech. It was perhaps due to his disdain for the self-interested establishment that Williamson never saw the need to refute any of these rumours, but ultimately he paid the price. He continued composing major works, but they were rarely performed more than once, the critics saw to that, despite Williamson’s continued popularity with the public. There was to come more symphonies, the sixth and seventh, both written for Australia, major vocal/choral and orchestral works, a fourth piano concerto, unperformed as of the time of writing this, and a number of works that remain unfinished, including a further chamber opera, Easter.

In 1998 Malcolm suffered a further, serious stroke which left him with limited movement, and very little speech. He was to live for a further four years in rather lonely isolation, his mind and intellect undimmed, his wit still razor sharp. He was, however assailed by doubts as to the value of his music. He was somehow too unworldly to understand the process that had gone on, too uncompromising in his own behaviour to understand that other people could act less than honourably. The standing ovation he received at a Wigmore Hall concert to mark his 70th birthday was a source of enormous pleasure for him, but apart from a concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra, there were no other performances in his seventieth birthday year. It is perhaps a truism to say that he will begin to be appreciated after his death, now that he’s not around to scandalize the establishment. It’s another truism to say that it will be too late for him to realise …..

Working with Malcolm on his music was never less than entertaining, but often far from conventional. Rarely would there be a simple ‘a bit faster here,’ ‘a bit softer there.’ One would probably be referred to a painting by a painter one had never heard of, a book one had never read, or a spot in Bulgaria one had never been to, all delivered in an excited monologue punctuated by cigarettes, with a slight affectation to grumpiness if he was interrupted to be asked about a textual matter. These he would clear up with a wave of the hand, almost as if they were a matter of indifference, and yet he would remember two performances by the same artist years apart, and remember a wrong note played both times, deducing, correctly, a misprint in the score. He would tell you to go and listen to a Mozart mass, or a Stravinsky cantata, a Delius orchestral piece, and then say ‘Anyway, you know how it goes…’, and break into a salacious story regarding someone or other, which, often, one had heard once or twice before! Did it help? Being with Malcolm was always stimulating. His passion for music, life and everything else, was infectious and enlightening. He would sometimes play snatches himself, not well in his later years, but passionately. He would then maybe play it again, quite differently but equally convincingly – the mark of great music? He also collected wooden crocodiles…. © Antony Gray

Printed with the kind permission of Antony Gray and with acknowledgement to the ABC who have issued a 3CD set of Williamson’s music for solo piano played by Antony Gray


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