Malcolm Williamson

by Mark Isaacs

Malcolm Williamson
Complete Works for Piano
Antony Gray, piano
ABC 472 902-2

During my high school and University years in the 1970s when I began to mix within the Sydney “new music” scene as a budding composer I recall that the name of Australian composer Malcolm Williamson was invariably invoked with a snigger of derision by most of those whom I looked up to for guidance.

In retrospect this can surely be viewed through the prism of the much-vaunted “Tall Poppy Syndrome” welded not only to the then stifling artistic “correctness” imposed by an all-pervasive and stringently ideological interpretation of the idea of  “Modernism” but also to general political correctness itself.

It seems to me that Williamson’s “sins” were as follows.

Firstly, he was too successful and this success manifested in a highly politically inappropriate way. In 1975 he was appointed to the position of Master of the Queen’s music, the first non-British composer to hold the post. In Australia he was viewed as a kind of traitor in accepting such a prestigious position in another country and given that it was a royal appointment he betrayed in the most spectacular way possible the “anti-establishment” ethos thought proper for artists in the late twentieth century, in particular grating against the basic republicanism that naturally informed such polemical forces within Australia.

Secondly, his music was too eclectic for its time and largely too accessible. Williamson approached composition in a way that is accepted as the norm now but at the time was highly suspect. Musical means were not an end in themselves – he used whatever techniques were appropriate to extract the core of the particular piece he was writing. Some of his music was astringently non-tonal, such as in the Sonata No. 2 where he used serial techniques. In other works, particularly those intended as teaching works (such as the various “Travel Diaries”), the harmonic language is often tonal and highly accessible. His music also contains within its reach moods and colours firmly rejected in the new concert music of the time: humour, charm, elegance and flippancy for example. This music always has “line” in a way that was not often part of the armoury of the largely University-based composers of the period: it can almost always be listened to within the rubric of a conventional music syntax of some kind. Most unforgivably, audiences liked it.

This 3-CD set contains four sonatas, a set of five Preludes, the teaching pieces that consist of the five Travel Diaries (Sydney, Naples, London, Paris and New York) as well as Haifa Watercolours and The Bridge that van Gogh painted and the French Camargue, the Variations for Piano, Ritual of Admiration and Hymna Titu.

Pianist Antony Gray has worked directly with Williamson and has written the excellent liner notes and the candid biography containing many first-hand personal insights that appear in the CD booklet. He is in all respects a staunch advocate for Williamson’s work.

Gray has great cleanliness and heightened surety of touch that serve to make the composer’s textures refreshingly transparent – nothing is swallowed or muffled as the music’s lines and layers are starkly etched within the listener’s ear. His technique is prodigious: crisp and biting where needed while filigree passages are woven with a sense of abandonment to their intricacy. At the same time I find the sound-world overall could reveal a wider depth of colour: the piano rarely sings in a deeply affecting and telling cantabile, pianissimos do not melt into a reverent yet lithe hush and the pedalling is not often strategically atmospheric. Nonetheless, while eschewing this degree of emotional engagement with the material Gray’s is honed and extremely robust playing that articulately advocates every detail of the text. It is clearly also a massive achievement to sustain such an impeccably high level of performance quality as one finds here across nearly three hours of music.

This release is highly important and one to be firmly celebrated, coming as it does in the year of the composer’s death and at a time when according to Gray “there is barely a note of [Williamson’s] music in the CD catalogues”. Gray and ABC music should be firmly congratulated for single-handedly providing a powerful redress to this unfortunate situation and it is very fitting that this has been done in Australia – clearly one of our most important and successful composers has been grossly neglected both here and internationally.

In closing I would like to reflect on Gray’s assessment of Williamson as “one of the great composers of the 20th century”. Having listened to all three CDs I have been left with the impression of a composer who demonstrated a prolific facility, impeccable craftsmanship and a brilliantly wide variety of vocabulary and means. However I was not struck with an over-arching vision or a driving need to reveal a deeply personal engagement with the universe, rather more a sense that he is toying with his ideas from a distance, that they are in some way “specimens” that he has found along the way which he astutely and industriously collates in variegated ways for our pleasure (and there is considerable pleasure here).

Williamson seems generously charming, a great and articulate musical conversationalist on a wide range of topics, clever and engaging even when saying the more difficult things. Nonetheless I want to ask this formidable man what made his soul cry or sing with joy in the long dark nights because I have not yet found the answers here as I have so clearly found them when encountering work that seems to indisputably carry that ineffable aroma of “greatness”.