Malcolm Williamson 70th Birthday Concert

Celebration of Divine Love
Partita on Themes of Walton
Three Songs [first performance]
From a Child’s Garden
White Dawns
Vocalise [first performance]
Piano Concerto No.2

Tribute pieces:

Michael Finnissy
Small-ish Foxtrot
Ross Edwards
A Postcard from Sydney
Morgan Hayes
Birthday Capriccio
John McCabe
Canons for M.W
Andrew Toovey
A Little Birthday Music
Peter Sculthorpe
Looking Back
John Carmichael
Richard Rodney Bennett
Down by the River (arr.)

Various artists

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 November, 2001
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

It’s hard to believe, given the absence of performances over most of the last two decades, that Malcolm Williamson was once a mainstay of the contemporary music scene – his operas frequently performed and televised, with choral and vocal works commissioned on a basis that no doubt played a part in his becoming Master of the Queen’s Music in 1976. In short, a neglect that took this 70th birthday concert to all but reintroduce his music to the wider public.

While the programme was well chosen to illustrate the range – and quality – of his vocal and chamber music, opening with Celebration of Divine Love (1963) was surely a mistake. This lengthy (22-minute) setting of a nobly-intentioned but convoluted poem by James McAuley, concerning the regeneration of religious belief vis-à-vis materialist gratification over the ages, brought forth vocal writing alternately lyrical and declamatory, with a piano part ranging from discreet gesture to a Messiaenic harmonic richness. Soprano Adey Grummet and pianist Antony Gray gave a committed performance, but the emotional balance of the evening seemed uncertain thereafter.

Violist Dorothea Vogel had the measure of Partita on Themes of Walton (1972), a diverting 70th-birthday tribute which draws on the older composer’s Viola Concerto over its five short movements. Three Songs from 1986 received their first performance; surprisingly so, as these enticing settings of Herrick and Marvell, followed by Rupert Brooke’s emotionally complex ’Day that I have Loved’, have a richness of tonal syntax such as few composers of Williamson’s generation or after could aspire to. Persuasively sung by Roderick Williams, these need to be in the modern song repertory. The Serenade for flute, piano and string trio (1967) brings lightness though also ambiguity of touch to the subject of a child’s imagination – its robustness and whimsicality well realised by Gray with members of IXION.

Two contrasting song-cycles opened the second half. From a Child’s Garden (1968) works twelve of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems on childhood into a taut but diverse sequence, their adult vein of nostalgia beautifully conveyed by soprano Natalie Christie and Gray. White Dawns (1985) sets verse by the Macedonian nationalist poet Kosta Ratsin, in music of highly- (but never over-) wrought intensity; the final ’Elegy’ drawing powerful emotional equivocation out of harmonic consonance. Williams and Gray gave a commanding performance.

A touching ’pre-memorial’ Vocalise (1985) received its first performance courtesy of Christie and Gray, before the latter joined with Vogel and IXION in a lively account of the Second Piano Concerto (1960) in a ’chamber’ version. One of Williamson’s most effervescent and approachable works, the outer movements’ Poulencian wit contrasts with the melancholic ambience of the central ’Andante’. The deft handling of form and focusing of an over-arching tonal process are at once Williamson’s; again, it’s a pity that a work that once featured regularly in concert and on radio should have so fallen out of the picture.

The concert also included a sequence of eight tribute pieces. They all made their point with sincerity and affection, though a special mention for the Stravinskian incisiveness of John McCabe’s Canons for M.W, the intense recollection of Peter Sculthorpe’s Looking Back and, in the second half, Richard Rodney Bennett’s elegant transcription of the Rogers & Hart standard, Down by the River, from a film with Bing Crosby.

It was great that the composer himself, now largely wheelchair-bound, was there to witness the occasion, and to enjoy a chorus of “Happy Birthday” from an enthusiastic audience. Maybe a Malcolm Williamson revival has started here.

  • This concert was recorded for future broadcast

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