Monday, 10 October 2016

Tom Winpenny gives impressive performances on a new Naxos release featuring very fine organ works by Malcolm Williamson, a composer of whom we still do not hear enough

Composer, Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003) was born in Sydney, Australia and studied piano with Alexander Sverjensky and later composition with Alex Burnard and Eugene Goossens at the Sydney Conservatorium. On moving to London in 1950 he discovered the serial music of the second Viennese school and that of composers such as Messiaen and Boulez whilst continuing his studies with Elisabeth Lutyens and Erwin Stein.

In order to support himself Williamson worked as a proof-reader for a publishing house, as an organist and choirmaster in a parish church and as a pianist in a nightclub. In addition to his nightclub work, his musical influences were Stravinsky, Messiaen, Italian operatic composers and late nineteenth-century German music. Around this time Williamson converted to the Roman Catholic faith which became another important influence on his music.

Williamson was able to devote himself entirely to composition, receiving regular commissions.  In 1975 he became the first non-Briton ever to hold the post of Master of the Queen's Music. His compositional output included symphonies, stage works, chamber works, choral and religious music and film scores. Despite residing in the UK Williamson still considered his music as being fundamentally Australian. 

He was appointed CBE in 1976 and the Order of Australia for services to music and the mentally handicapped in 1987. The University of Melbourne conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Music upon him in 1982.

Naxos have just released a two CD set featuring organ works by Williamson written over a period from 1959 to 1975 and played by Assistant Master of the Music at St Albans Cathedral, Tom Winpenny playing the Walker organ at the church of St. John the Evangelist, Duncan Terrace, London, England 


Disc 1 is given over to Peace Pieces (1970-71) written whilst the composer held the post of honorary fellow and composer-in-residence at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, USA  where he composed them for his colleague, James Litton, Assistant Professor of Organ and Head of Church Music. Peace in Childhood brings a gentle little theme that is developed with added pedal phrases, slowly gaining in dynamics, texture and tempi as the music expands, finding some dissonant moments and revealing an anxious quality as it progresses. Peace in Youth opens with a quizzical theme before angrier, lower chords appear. The piece quickly moves forward with fleeting little phrases, the peace continually being disturbed by rapid phrases and dissonances. It builds through some broader textures until a gentler, slower passage brings about a peaceful lead up to the coda that nevertheless is disturbed by an angrier chord. Peace in Solitude brings dripped, dissonant phrases over more sustained chords. Penetrating phrases clash before this unsettling piece ends on an unresolved chord.

Firm resolute phrases open Peace in America with contrasting quieter moments. Williamson’s intervals and harmonies are terrific with contrasting distant chords giving a sense of depth. Tom Winpenny brings a sense of isolated calm in the gentler passages, developing some terrific textures as the music rises in drama and anger. The organ sounds out dramatically in the opening of The Wise Men Visit the Prince of Peace before a faster tune contrasts.  The piece grows in drama yet still the lighter and more joyous tune re-appears. Midway a quieter calm intervenes, a lovely section that flows ahead quickly.  As the drama grows again, the little tune appears in a more forceful version before finding a gentle coda. The Peace of God that Passeth All Understanding brings a broad relaxed theme that flows forward with gentle dissonances. It is varied through different registrations that add more texture, achieving some terrific dissonant phrases, growing in strength and dramas. Yet the broader theme of the opening returns with Williamson developing some distinctive harmonies and textures as the music progresses. The music moves through some tremendous passages full of drama and forceful dynamics with some fine rhythmic phrases before gliding to a quiet coda on a sustained chord.

Disc 2 opens with Résurgence du Feu (Pâques 1959) (Resurgence of Fire - Easter 1959) one of two world premiere recordings on this release.  It is dedicated to the congregation of St. Peter’s, Limehouse where the composer was organist at the time. It opens on a deep chord over which a little motif is played, soon finding a rather playful character. However, it soon develops in passion and drama through some terrific ideas, fine textures and colours with an insistent motif that recalls Messiaen. There are some remarkable passages before it ends on a dynamic chord.

Williamson met the Sitwells soon after arriving in England. His Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell (1966) were commissioned for a memorial programme as part of the 1966 Aldeburgh Festival. No. 1 has a descending motif that is overlaid by a more flowing idea. The motif is developed with varying intervals before a deep throated pedal theme arrives under a broader organ line. One wonders if this indicates something of Sitwell’s character. No. 2 sounds out with broad bold chords, alternating with a quieter, gentler theme before staccato chords appear. The broader theme is developed before concluding quietly.

Little Carols of the Saints (1971-72) was written for the American organist, John Rose and consists of five short pieces portraying the human qualities of different saints. The Magdalene in the Garden opens with a little tune that flows forward over hushed pedal, developing through some lovely passages with a real sense of joy and peace. This is a beautifully light and spacious work gaining a little in passion before a peaceful coda. Little motifs appear over longer phrases in Francis of Assisi, suggesting bird song. Winpenny brings a real lightness of touch here.

Stephen at Peace opens with a rich broad theme gaining a confidence and strength as it moves steadily forward with only the slightest touch of introspection later. Ignatius the Soldier sounds out brilliantly with a sparkling opening theme and some terrific light textures, lively and full of energy. Paul upon Mars Hill opens with energetic swirling phrases overlaid with decorations and richer outbursts before moving through sparkling passages where the energy and rapid phrases do not let up , achieving a tremendous development of texture.

Elegy – JFK (1964) was composed for Alec Wyton, organist of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York. It immediately brings a real contrast as the theme slowly expands from a single chord before flourishing through some rapid phrases with fine textures.  The trumpets of the organ provide fine flourishes before a fierce passage with a held note to end.

The other world premiere recording here is Fantasy on ‘This Is My Father's World’ (1975) a prelude or postlude on themes from Williamson’s hymn and anthem of the same name. It flows gently forward bringing an innocent, peaceful charm through a rising and falling passage before a broader passage rises dynamically. The piece suddenly finds a gentler moment before an unexpectedly grand coda.

Mass of a Medieval Saint (1973) was commissioned by the American musician and patron, Lee H. Bristol Jnr. and was intended as an organ mass for liturgical use. There is a grand opening to the Introit with trumpets before moving ahead in a lovely flowing melody. Later both ideas are combined before finding a grand, stately coda. The is a tranquil Gradual of great delicacy with a lovely conclusion before an Offertory that brings a heavier tread as it moves forward through some fine harmonies.

Communion brings a longer breathed melody that keeps a steady forward movement as the theme develops whereas Sortie is dynamic and flamboyant, hurtling ahead with some fine textures to a terrific coda and surely giving any congregation member more than a spring in their step.

These are very fine works from a composer of which we still do not hear enough. Tom Winpenny’s performances are impressive. He is very extremely well recorded and he provides some excellent booklet notes.

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