Elevamini (A Symphony)
Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell
Symphony No.5 (Aquerò)
Lento for strings
Iceland Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 13-17 February 2006 in the Háskólabíó, Iceland
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: July 2007
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10406
Duration: 67 minutes
The second volume of Chandos’s survey of Malcolm Williamson’s orchestral music brings together two of his seven symphonies and two shorter works for strings.
Elevamini (A Symphony), to quote its official title, is the first of the symphonies, dating from 1956-7, a few years after Williamson (1931-2003) had become a Roman Catholic. Dedicated to the memory of his recently deceased grandmother, it takes its title (‘Be lifted up’) from Psalm 24: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.”
The opening is arresting – a tense, dissonant and rhythmically distinctive gesture that returns to mark the movement’s climax. The rest is compounded of high, exploratory violin lines, enigmatic exchanges between orchestral sections and quiet but tense, nervy percussion. The short scherzo is an engaging piece full of dancing energy, while the finale, like the first movement, is a large-scale, multi-sectional piece. It opens by alternating two distinctive musical characters, both suggesting Stravinskian ancestry – a slow, austere, chant-like wind music, and faster, more incisively rhythmic material (recalling “Symphony of Psalms” and The Rite of Spring respectively).
Williamson wrote his Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell originally for organ, and played them at a memorial concert for the poet at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1966. He made the version for strings six years later. Two heartfelt adagio meditations, they make their points quietly and succinctly.
Williamson’s overtly programmatic Symphony No.5 (1979-1980) was written for the Brent Youth Orchestra (North London), and is based on the life of St Bernadette of Lourdes; the subtitle ‘Aquerò’ (‘that thing’) was her word for what she saw in her vision. In five movements that play continuously (for 25 minutes), the symphony opens as an atmospheric tone poem, ‘Dawn over the Pyrénées, 11.ii.1858’. This moves seamlessly into the apparition of ‘Aquerò’ itself, a slow, hieratic piece suggesting Williamson’s early admiration for Messiaen. ‘Corridors of Chant’ slowly builds a climax out of long, sinuous lines, while ‘The Aquerò speaks to Bernadette’ suggests a fusion of the two previous movements. Finally, ‘Bernadette prays: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison’, the longest of the five movements, juxtaposes quiet meditation with more vigorous material. Here we come to the only really quick music in the whole work – it’s been a long time coming, and there’s not enough of it to balance the slow, contemplative basic character of the rest of the work.
The short Lento for Strings uses a less astringent language than the other works, verging, indeed, on the saccharine. But it has the potential to become a popular favourite, not least with amateur strings groups.
I don’t imagine the players of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra have Williamson’s music in their blood, but they handle his striking sonorities and sometimes-diffuse structures with conviction. Chandos’s Williamson series is a sign that his reputation is beginning to emerge from the dark cloud of illness and missed deadlines that dogged his last 25 years or so, enabling us to get his work into a truer perspective. As to its ultimate value, who knows? But that’s what recordings like this are for, and Chandos’s vivid recording coupled with Lewis Foreman’s exemplary booklet notes certainly give it every chance.