Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Malcolm Williamson: Lento of strings

This is my first post about Malcolm Williamson and his music. He is a composer who seems to have passed me by. In the early 1970s the ‘Senior Ensemble’ at Coatbridge High School performed his delightful Procession of Psalms: it was a work that I took to immediately. In the intervening years I have only heard his First Symphony ‘Elevamini’ (1956/57) and the hugely attractive Suite to the opera Our Man in Havana (1963/66).  Somehow, I missed the first two offerings from Chandos of the ‘Orchestral Works’ which were released in the mid-2000s. I guess that is another series of music that was curtailed, as Williamson’s catalogue indicates many more pieces in that category.
One of the works that was issued is the Lento for Strings, composed in 1985. This short, but moving piece was dedicated to the composer’s friend, the Australian violinist and conductor Paul McDermott, who died in September of that year. McDermott had been instrumental in the recent recording of Williamson’s Symphony No.6.
Lewis Foreman in his liner notes for the Chandos recording of this work has noted that the music is a ‘slow and musically direct piece easily within the technical reach of young string players'. The Lento opens with an almost hymn-like simplicity, with the diatonic harmony giving a genuine elegiac feel to this music. Just occasionally there is something a little more acerbic in the harmonic progress. There is a gorgeous ‘upward run’ on the first violins towards the restatement of the tune. Here and there, the composer indulges in a little counterpoint and hints at a counter-melody. The work comes to a quite and meditative close.
Rob Barnett has wisely (and in no way disparagingly) suggested that this piece would be an ideal candidate for Classic FM. I agree. Here is a beautiful, touching elegy which moves in a gentle trajectory from Elgar to the present by way of Percy Grainger. It is almost unbelievable that I have never heard this work until the other day.
The Lento for strings was first heard performed by the Philharmonia a concert Music in the Round at Melbourne in 1985.
Malcolm Williamson suffers from the curse of having been an eclectic composer. He produced music in a huge variety of styles, from jazz to pop by way of Schoenberg and Britten for many different musical genres.  This lack of internal consistency and his failure to adopt the practice of integral serialism or other avant-garde procedures led to him being ignored by the musical cognoscenti. To be sure, there is a huge stylistic disparity between the ‘pop’ feel to the above mentioned Procession of Psalms and the sub-Stravinskian Perisynthion (1974) ballet score written for Robert Helpman, but never performed, which displayed ‘a combination of fantasy, imagination and extraordinarily complex compositional rigour.’ (Christopher Austin).

Malcolm Williamson’s ‘Lento for Strings’ is available on Chandos 10406 along with the composer’s Symphony No. 1 ‘Elevamini’, Symphony No. 5 ‘Aquero’ and the Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell. 

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