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Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931-2003)
Orchestral Works - Volume 2
Elevamini (A Symphony [No. 1]) In memoriam M.E.W. (1956-57) [31:16]
Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell for String Orchestra (1966/1972) [7:47]
Symphony No. 5 Aquerò (1979-80) [24:18]
Lento for Strings for Paul McDermott (1985) [3:12]
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Rumon Gamba
rec. Háskólabió, Iceland, 13-17 February 2006
CHANDOS CHAN10406 [67:06]
Experience Classicsonline

I suppose it is too much to hope that the parlous state of the Icelandic economy will not hobble this series. Fingers crossed that the series will not end in just two volumes; the first appeared in 2007 .
Williamson’s First Symphony Elevamini (‘Be ye lifted up’) is intended to portray the journey of the soul. It is a serious piece. The language is mildly astringent; not that dissimilar from mature William Alwyn. Two earnest movements are separated by a merry-eyed Allegretto. The latter seems to career between Copland and Beethoven. It's very entertaining. No wonder it has provoked enthusiasm - first from Boult who seemingly paid for a private premiere with the LPO and then in the 1970s from Charles Groves. Groves recorded it with the RLPO in the 1970s. That version was recorded by EMI and has since reappeared in a Lyrita CD reissue. The finale has dynamism which is alternated with a sort of clouded peace. The alternation of mood becomes increasingly impassioned but the work ends in a steady held note in the strings - a redemptive confidence in future peace.
The two Sitwell Epitaphs for strings are based on a theme from the slow movement of a work I have never taken to: his 1965 Violin Concerto. The first shimmers and strides - part RVW-Tallis-like and part brusque. The second Epitaph shivers rather than shimmers although warmed by the solo violin. This is a more severe piece than the first. The two parts of the diptych were played as bookends to a Sitwell memorial concert in Aldeburgh Parish Church in 1964. It has to be the ideal introduction to Williamson - after which try the Third Piano Concerto (Lyrita).
Aquerò can be thought of as Williamson’s ‘St Bernadette Symphony’. Aquerò (‘that thing’) is the word used by Bernadette to describe what she saw - the vision itself. The Fifth Symphony is quite compact yet extends over five movements. These include a very short scene-establisher: Dawn over the Pyrenees. This melts imperceptibly into the second movement, Aquerò. The progress of this music and its 'feel' is sumptuous with a touch of Messiaen about it though nothing like as extreme as the organ Symphony or the Vision of Christ Phoenix. This is a softer vision but ecstatic nonetheless and without the explosive jagged edges of Messiaen's wildness. The simplicity of the first movement returns for the finale - Bernadette Prays. Its introduction echoes the beguiling innocence of Basque folk music. A luminous and lyrical overlay develops, at times recalling the visionary tumult of Silvestrov's Fifth Symphony.
The short Lento for Strings is a direct speaking and touching piece. It is completely accessible to any classically-inclined listener. This would make an ideal contribution to any Classic FM programme - and this is not intended disparagingly. We hear a peaceful benediction with just a tinge of Grainger's sentimentality.
Lewis Foreman provides the lucid and compulsively readable notes and helpfully places and fixes the sequence of Williamson's symphonies. For further detail on Williamson try Paul Conway’s fine article.
Rob Barnett


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