The big work presented on this new double CD of organ music by Malcom Williamson is ‘Peace Pieces’ dating from 1970-1.
It was composed when Williamson held the post of Honorary Fellow and Composer in Residence at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey in the States. They were dedicated to James Litton, who at that time was the Assistant Professor of Organ and Head of Church Music.
The clue to the musical content of ‘Peace Pieces’ is in the title: Williamson had much ‘sympathy’ with calls to end war in Vietnam that were prevalent at that time. Other factors that inspire the work are ‘personal’ peace of mind and spiritual solitude. Concepts explored in Book1 are ‘Peace in Childhood’, ‘Youth’ and ‘Solitude’, and in Book 2, ‘Peace in America’, ‘The Wise Men visit the Prince of Peace’, and finally, ‘The Peace of God that Passeth All Understanding.’
This massive six movement work is atonal, full of imaginative themes, diverse moods and inspired registrations. It certainly has echoes of Olivier Messiaen, though as Peter Hardwick has pointed out, they have political and philosophical references as well as religious ones.
It is a long work, but is one that deserves to be listened to at a sitting. I do not believe that the recitalist should play selected sections as ‘everyday’ voluntaries.
A good place to start exploration of the second CD is with the Elegy-JFK (1964) which was written in response to the assassination of the American President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was one of a number of composers moved by this tragedy, including Stravinsky, Milhaud, Howells and Bernstein. In some ways Williamson’s piece is unusual for an Elegy. One almost expects it to be restrained, sombre and possibly a little introverted. The composer has given moments like this, but there is also a powerful outburst of anger and despair. It was written for Alec Wyton then organist at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York.
Turning to something very different, the ‘Little Carols of the Saints’ are delightful miniatures which are designed to portray musically the ‘human qualities’ of five well-loved saints. For example, the opening number is a ‘pastoral’ representing Mary Magdalene in the Easter Garden not recognizing her Risen Lord. The final carol is a superb toccata that reflects St Paul engaging Greek pagan religion on Mars Hill. It is full of movement and supressed energy that finally blazes in triumph. Other saints portrayed include St Francis of Assisi, St Stephen and St Ignatius. These pieces can be played individually as voluntaries or recessionals, however there is a value in hearing them as a suite.
The earliest piece on this CD is the ‘Resurgnece du Feu’ (Paques 1959), Resurgance of Fire (Easter 1959). This work is clearly influenced by Olivier Messiaen. Williamson makes use of bird-song and a highly coloured palette of registrations and a number of techniques including clusters and complex trills. The liner notes suggest that this work may have originated as an improvisation. Certainly, the power and optimism reflects the ‘Paschal Fire streaking through the Church, outside and beyond.’ It was written for the congregation of great Anglo-Catholic church of St Peter’s Limehouse where Williamson was organist at that time.
The ‘Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) were written for a memorial concert in 1966. Williamson knew the author and had written an opera based on her book English Eccentrics. The present work is derived from a melodic fragment of the ‘adagio’ of Williamson’s Violin Concerto. This is presented in a number of slow and introverted guises, which do not really hold my interest.
The Fantasy on ‘This is my Father’s World’ is a lovely workaday piece that could be used at any church service as an introductory voluntary. It is based on Malcolm Williamson’s hymn and anthem of the same tittle.
The last work on the second CD is the ‘Mass of a Medieval Saint.’ This was composed in 1973 for the American hymnologist, musician and patron Lee H. Bristol, Jnr. It is conceived as an organ mass after the works of de Grigny and Couperin. This was a baroque concept where the organ would play more or less continuously during ‘Low Mass.’ Whether this is a desirable practice in 2016, I will leave the liturgists to decide. As a suite of music inspired by the life and witness of a great saint, (St Bernard) it is a worthy piece to be played at a recital. Much of the music, including the Gradual and the Communion sections is ‘contemplative’. On the other hand, the Introit is powerful and dignified, the Offertory is a little skittish and the final Sortie is a tour de force.
The organ at the Church of St John the Evangelist is superb. It was built by J.W. Walker in 1963 and was designed with the ‘organ reform movement’ or as some would have it ‘back to baroque’ principles in mind. The instrument was also provided with French style reeds, which makes it more versatile. It was renovated in 2005-6 by Keith Bance Organ Builders. A full specification is given in the liner notes.
Tom Winpenny, the Assistant Master of Music at St Alban’s Cathedral, plays all these pieces with skill and commitment. He has already released a number of important works by Williamson on Toccata Classics (TOCC 0246) including the ‘monumental’ Symphony for Organ (1960), the early ‘Fons Amoris’ (1955-6) and Fantasy on ‘O Paradise’ (1976). For those in possession of this Toccata disc and the present Naxos disc there are only a handful of works missing. In spite of this earlier release on Toccata, I wonder if this is going to be the first ‘volume’ of the collected organ works of Malcolm Williamson to be issued on Naxos. Let us hope that Tom Winpenny completes the cycle on this lovely instrument.
Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931-2003)
Peace Pieces (1970-1)
Résurgnece du Feu (Paques 1959) (1959)
Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell (1966)
Little Carols of the Saints (1971-2)
Elegy -JFK (1964)
Fantasy on ‘This is my Father’s World’ (1975)
Mass of a Medieval Saint (1973)
Tom Winpenny (organ)
Rec. The Church of St John the Evangelist, Duncan Terrace, Islington, London 17-18 February 2016
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.