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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Peter Broadbent here conducts his fine choir, the Joyful Company of Singers, in well-chosen selection of the a capella choral music of Malcholm Williamson, much of it inspired by his native Australian, as well as by his Catholic faith. The writing is characteristically fluent and attractive, with one of the major items providing a fine contrast with the other works, the choral suite from the opera inspired by a book of Edith Sitwell, English Eccentrics. Although Williamson enjoyed much success in the 1960s, his reputation as Master of the Queen’s Music in 1975. The Requiem for a Tribe Brother (1992) is electric and uneven, but the eloquent early Symphony for Voices is alone worth the modest price of the disc. The sound is eminently satisfactory; the singing is good but falls short of real distinction. Well worth getting, all the same.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, January 2007

At long last Malcolm Williamson’s music is being given a chance. How refreshing to find it on Naxos, at a price within everyone’s budget and performed so superbly by one of the country’s best choirs and choral directors, who over the years have made a specialism of contemporary music. It is also a joy that they have chosen well from Williamson’s quite large folio of choral works in what is a prolific and perhaps uneven output.

The disc opens impressively with a work which I have always yearned to hear: the Symphony for Voices written when the composer was about thirty. At this point I need to say what a huge disappointment it is that, to quote the CD box, “ Naxos regret that we are unable to print the texts for tracks 1-12”. The only texts provided therefore are for the Requiem not, incidentally of course, in copyright. For me, about a third of my enjoyment has been lost due to lack of texts, despite the fact that it would be unfair to criticize the efforts made by the choir in the diction department. The acoustic of Charterhouse School does not always help, especially in forte passages. This means that James McCauley’s wonderful text cannot be fully appreciated.

I cannot understand why Tennyson’s words for ‘Love, the sentinel’ could not be printed. The text is from his huge poem ‘In Memoriam’, try as I might however, I could not find the relevant passage in my (Penguin) Tennyson edition. Is there anyone out there who can point me in the right direction?

Even worse is the fact that Edith Sitwell's words for the wonderful ‘English Eccentrics’ Suite are not available. The pace of the music is sometimes such that much is lost. Having got all of that off my chest I can now move on.

So, why a ‘Symphony for Voices’, especially in the light of the fact that the first movement is for a solo alto - the beautifully-toned Kathryn Cook? Well, two reasons: the developmental way the material is constructed, particularly in movement five, the longest one, called ‘New Guinea’ and secondly in some of the rich and expressive textures, which in this movement are sometimes homophonic, sometimes monophonic. The text passes between the voices imaginatively and movingly, but the mood remains calm and serene.

The same sensation is felt in ‘Love the Sentinel’ with its emphasis on ‘All is Well’ - also quoted from Julianne of Norwich. This was written in 1972 at the height of the industrial troubles in England and on the death of one Fred Matthews who was killed by a strike-breaking vehicle.

The settings of Edith Sitwell are witty and entertaining. They were composed, according to Lewis Mitchell in his useful accompanying essay, “for the basis of an opera formulating in Williamson’s mind about 1964”. There are six movements including ‘The Quacks’ a kind of Scherzo which weighs in at just one minute.

The Requiem ends the disc. It was written for ‘The Joyful Company’ who also sang this moving work at the composer’s funeral. Their interpretation is surely impossible to improve upon. There is a sense of landscape here too, more especially an ‘Australian landscape’. How is this achieved?

The men’s voices are used at the opening of the work (‘Requiem aeternam’) intoning in close, dirge-like harmonies and repeating an Ostinato, like a kind of didgeridoo under a more western, lush harmony in the upper voices. You might say that the Antipodes seem to meet Europe. The textures are not dissimilar in the later ‘Libera me’ where the bass line is more rhythmic, syncopated and ritualized, but this is most apt because the ‘Tribe Brother’ commemorated here was an aboriginal friend. The ‘Kyrie’and ‘Pie Jesu’ sound more like Victorian hymns in their homophonic textures, and the glorious Sanctus is very much a part of Oxbridge tradition. The ‘Agnus Dei’ rises to a gorgeous and warm climax and reminds me of Sir George Dyson and Stanford. However putting stylistic influences to one side this remains a work that is most satisfying and demands rehearing and surely more live performances.

My advice is buy this disc. All music-lovers can and will find sustenance in the music offered and there can be no complaints about the performances or the recordin.

American Record Guide, December 2006

Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003) was an Australian who settled permanently in England and went on to become Master of the Queen's Music, the first non-Brit appointed to that post. Despite such laurels, his works don't pop up very often these days, and, I'll admit it, I had never heard of him until this came my way.

Williamson's Australian sensibilities never left him. His 1992 Requiem for a Tribe Brother memorializes a young Aboriginal friend of his, and, as the notes tell us, male voices are used to suggest the drone of the didgeridoo. His Symphony for Voices, which dates from the early 1960s (and isn't a symphony at all),. places texts by Australian poet James McAuley in five song settings. 'Love, the Sentinel' is 8 minutes of Tennyson set to music in memory of a young man killed amid British labor strife, while 'English Eccentrics' is a choral suite derived from a Williamson opera based on a novel by Edith Sitwell.

The Naxos notes don't say a whole lot about the music, and only the Mass is accorded a written text. The label apologizes for this in the booklet. This is no small matter, for it keeps most of the program at arm's length from the listener. Williamson's style can be gritty, with tough intervals and austere unison passages dominating his rhetoric, so the lack of poetic connection gives one precious little to grab on to. What is of interest, though, is the Requiem, a worthy traversal of the liturgy with attractive interludes like the 'Pie Jesu' and 'Agnus Dei', plus a trenchant 'Libera me' served up con attitudo by Maestro Broadbent's choir. It was performed at Williamson's funeral by these same forces, and they still sing it like they mean it.

Hubert Culot
MusicWeb International, October 2006

It seems that Williamson’s music, though rather well served during the LP era, went through its purgatory during the last years of the composer’s life, and is now drawing some renewed interest. Chandos have launched a series of recordings of Williamson’s orchestral works; and now comes this generously filled disc with some substantial and rarely heard works for unaccompanied chorus, none of which has previously been committed to CD.

Some may remember that long-deleted recording of the Symphony for Voices released many years ago in one of the pioneering discs made under the auspices of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (originally by EMI and later re-issued as Argo ZRG 758). Though a comparatively early work, the Symphony for Voices already display a number of characteristics that one has come to regard as Williamson hallmarks. Listen especially for his typical blend of modernism and tradition, at times clearly indebted to Britten - just listen to the second or the sixth movements of the English Eccentrics Choral Suite as a good example of Britten’s influence. His feel for effective word-setting is much aided by his richly melodic writing. Though not a symphony in the complete meaning of the word, the piece is laid-out in four movements along the traditional pattern (moderate-slow-fast-moderate), preceded by a long introductory Invocation set for solo alto. The words are drawn from poems by the Australian poet James McAuley. The outer movements Terra Australis and New Guinea evoke a beautifully poetic vision of Australia and New Guinea (“Bird-shaped island”), whereas the inner movements Jesus, the music of which briefly hints at plainchant, and Envoi with its somewhat more angular writing function as slow movement and Scherzo respectively. The final movement ends with a beautiful, appeased, almost mystical coda (“Splendour, simplicity, joy such as were seen/In one who now rests by his mountain road”). I had not heard this work for quite a long time, and I was really delighted to encounter it again, almost afresh. I was impressed by the real beauty of much of this music.

Williamson’s opera English Eccentrics on a libretto by Geoffrey Dunn based on Edith Sitwell’s eponymous book was completed in 1964. The composer drew from this a short choral suite, “depicting a miscellany of strange and fascinating characters” (Lewis Mitchell). Incidentally, some of the music for English Eccentrics also found its way into the Violin Concerto. As mentioned earlier in this review, the music as heard in the various movements of the choral suite is at times overtly reminiscent of Britten, but none the worse for that.

Love, the Sentinel is a short choral work setting words from Tennyson’s In Memoriam commissioned by the Scunthorpe Festival and written in memory of a young man killed by a strike-breaking vehicle at the time of electricity industry strikes at that time. For all its brevity it remains an eloquent piece of music.

Williamson’s substantial Requiem for a Tribe Brother was composed when the composer heard of the death of a young Aboriginal friend. It was written for the Joyful Company of Singers who gave the first performance in 1992 and sang it at Williamson’s funeral in 2003. It is a deeply-felt work, mostly of meditative nature, although with enough contrast to keep the music going almost effortlessly for half an hour. It is an impressive achievement with a lot of very fine music, some of it belonging among the finest he ever penned. Listen for example to the Offertory [track 15] or the almost operatic Pie Jesu [track16].

The Joyful Company of Singers’ immaculate performances are pure joy from first to last and they are most naturally recorded. The only reservation about this otherwise magnificent release is the absence of the words, except – a bit ironically, I think – those from the Requiem Mass. Those who still have the old recording of Symphony for Voices will of course find part of the solution, but it nevertheless is a pity to be left in the dark as far as Love, the Sentinel and English Eccentrics Choral Suite are concerned. But let no-one be deterred by this minor reservation, for here is a splendid disc of splendid music superbly sung.

Marc Rochester
Gramophone, October 2006

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