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Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931–2003)
Symphony for Voices (1960/2)a [16:31]
Love, the Sentinel (1972) [8:30]
English Eccentrics - Choral Suite (1964) [15:16]
Requiem for a Tribe Brother (1992) [29:24]
Kathryn Cook (alto)a
Joyful Company of Singers/Peter Broadbent
rec. Hall, Charterhouse, Godalming, Surrey, February 2005
NAXOS 8.557783 [69:42]


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.

Williamson’s opera 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.

Love, the 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.

Williamson’s substantial 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 Jesu [track16].

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.

Hubert Culot


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