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Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931-2003)
Choral Music
Symphony for Voices (I. Invocation [03:36]; II. Terra Australis [03:08]; III. Jesus [02:29]; IV. Envoi [02:18]; V. New Guinea [05:01]) (1960-2) [16.31])
Love, the Sentinel (1972) [8.30]
English Eccentrics - Choral Suite (I. Goose - Weather [04:25]; II. An Amateur of Fashion [01:58]; III. From 'Sarah Whitehead' [03:03]; IV. The Quacks [01:00]; V. A Traveller [01:22]; VI. The Old Beau [03:27]) (1964) [15.16])
Requiem for a Tribe Brother (Requiem aeternam (Introit) [03:37]; Kyrie [02:45]; Domine Jesu Christe (Offertory) [04:44]; Pie Jesu [04:04]; Sanctus [01:49]; Benedictus [01:21]; Agnus Dei [03:14]; Lux aeterna (Communion) [02:31]; Libera me [02:38]; In Paradisum [02:40]) (1992) [29.24])
Joyful Company of Singers/Peter Broadbent
rec. 12-13 February 2005, Charterhouse School, Godalming, Surrey
NAXOS 8.557783 [69.12]

 

At long last Malcolm Williamson’s music is being given a chance. How refreshing to find it on Naxos, at a price within everyone’s budget and performed so superbly by one of the country’s best choirs and choral directors, who over the years have made a specialism of contemporary music. It is also a joy that they have chosen well from Williamson’s quite large folio of choral works in what is a prolific and perhaps uneven output.

The disc opens impressively with a work which I have always yearned to hear: the Symphony for Voices written when the composer was about thirty. At this point I need to say what a huge disappointment it is that, to quote the CD box, “Naxos  regret that we are unable to print the texts for tracks 1-12”. The only texts provided therefore are for the Requiem not, incidentally of course, in copyright. For me, about a third of my enjoyment has been lost due to lack of texts, despite the fact that it would be unfair to criticize the efforts made by the choir in the diction department. The acoustic of Charterhouse School does not always help, especially in forte passages. This means that James McCauley’s wonderful text cannot be fully appreciated.

I cannot understand why Tennyson’s words for ‘Love, the sentinel’ could not be printed. The text is from his huge poem ‘In Memoriam’, try as I might however, I could not find the relevant passage in my (Penguin) Tennyson edition. Is there anyone out there who can point me in the right direction?

Even worse is the fact that Edith Sitwell's words for the wonderful ‘English Eccentrics’ Suite are not available. The pace of the music is sometimes such that much is lost. Having got all of that off my chest I can now move on.

So, why a ‘Symphony for Voices’, especially in the light of the fact that the first movement is for a solo alto - the beautifully-toned Kathryn Cook? Well, two reasons: the developmental way the material is constructed, particularly in movement five, the longest one, called ‘New Guinea’ and secondly in some of the rich and expressive textures, which in this movement are sometimes homophonic, sometimes monophonic. The text passes between the voices imaginatively and movingly, but the mood remains calm and serene. 

The same sensation is felt in ‘Love the Sentinel’ with its emphasis on ‘All is Well’ - also quoted from Julianne of Norwich. This was written in 1972 at the height of the industrial troubles in England and on the death of one Fred Matthews who was killed by a strike-breaking vehicle.

The settings of Edith Sitwell are witty and entertaining. They were composed, according to Lewis Mitchell in his useful accompanying essay, “for the basis of an opera formulating in Williamson’s mind about 1964”. There are six movements including ‘The Quacks’ a kind of Scherzo which weighs in at just one minute. 

The Requiem ends the disc. It was written for ‘The Joyful Company’ who also sang this moving work at the composer’s funeral. Their interpretation is surely impossible to improve upon. There is a sense of landscape here too, more especially an ‘Australian landscape’. How is this achieved?

The men’s voices are used at the opening of the work (‘Requiem aeternam’) intoning in close, dirge-like harmonies and repeating an Ostinato, like a kind of didgeridoo under a more western, lush harmony in the upper voices. You might say that the Antipodes seem to meet Europe. The textures are not dissimilar in the later ‘Libera me’ where the bass line is more rhythmic, syncopated and ritualized, but this is most apt because the ‘Tribe Brother’ commemorated here was an aboriginal friend.  The  ‘Kyrie’and ‘Pie Jesu’ sound more like Victorian hymns in their homophonic textures, and the glorious Sanctus is very much a part of Oxbridge tradition. The ‘Agnus Dei’ rises to a gorgeous and warm climax and reminds me of Sir George Dyson and Stanford. However putting stylistic influences to one side this remains a work that is most satisfying and demands rehearing and surely more live performances.

My advice is buy this disc. All music-lovers can and will find sustenance in the music offered and there can be no complaints about the performances or the recording.

Gary Higginson

see also Review by Hubert Culot

 

 

 

 



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