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CLASSICAL  March 2008

CLASSICAL March 2008

Subject:

Choral Music from Down Under

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 22 Mar 2008 12:31:39 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

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Malcolm Williamson
Choral Music

*  Symphony for Voices*
*  Love, the Sentinel
*  English Eccentrics Choral Suite
*  Requiem for a Tribe Brother

Kathryn Cook, alto*
Joyful Company of Singers/Peter Broadbent
Naxos 8.557783 Total time: 69:42

Summary for the Busy Executive: Nice colonial boy.

The Anglo-Australian composer Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003) studied
with Eugene Goossens in Sydney and then with Elizabeth Lutyens, among
others, in England.  He enjoyed a rising reputation in Britain from his
initial Big Splash in the Fifties to roughly the middle Seventies.  Then
performing organization seemed to lose interest, although he kept writing
and even became a Master of the Queen's Music.  And Williamson resented
it, becoming especially petulant over the subsequent attention paid to
Britten and Tippett, although by that time he had produced no score of
comparable stature to Britten's Death in Venice or Tippett's Third
Symphony.

Williamson at his best wrote vigorous, attractive, and extremely
well-made music.  At times, the "well-made" seemed to be the point.
Many's the time when I can only admire him, and I've never encountered
a work I could identify as his, simply by listening.  In many ways, he's
a musical magpie, taking from Stravinsky, Messiaen, Poulenc, and so on.
One seldom gets as good as one's sources without transforming them in
some personal way.

The Symphony for Voices (1962), probably Williamson's best-known
choral work, sets some complex poetry by the Australian James McAuley.
Despite the title, the work is no symphony, but a five-movement choral
meditation on the tangled relationship between the poet and his native
country.  Simply as a setting of poetry, Williamson's score represents
quite an achievement.  His music unsnarls the tangles of the text.
Largely homophonic, it nevertheless keeps one's interest, with bits
reminiscent of Messiaen's Cinq Rechants and choral music by Poulenc and
the American William Schuman.  Spare, even austere (I kept thinking of
the harsh Australian desert), the work includes a movement entirely for
a solo mezzo, and it holds together.  Williamson spends considerable art
on knowing when to change ideas and textures.

A decade later, during a strike in Britain, an electrical worker was
killed, run over on the picket line by a strikebreaker.  Williamson
responded with Love, the Sentinel, a gorgeous setting of a chunk from
Tennyson's In Memoriam (sections CXXVI-VII and CXXX).  Again, it's a
terrific bit of craft as well - an eight-minute continuous setting.
Williamson keeps a tight rein on musical coherence.  This isn't a "one
thing after another" setting, but a tight argument.  The idiom has become
warmer, more obviously heart-felt since the Symphony, and all for the
better.  This is the kind of music you'd want at your own funeral.

The English Eccentrics Choral Suite, based on the work by Edith
Sitwell, shows off Williamson's considerable wit.  The suite comes from
Williamson's opera of the same name.  The suite consists of five movements:
"Goose-weather," "An Amateur of Fashion," "From 'Sarah Whitehead'," "The
Quacks," "A Traveller," and "The Old Beau." Ironically, it sounds a lot
like Britten, particularly the 5 Flower Songs and the Choral Dances from
Gloriana.  My two favorite movements stand at opposite emotional poles.
"An Amateur of Fashion" is an hilarious choral fox-trot, while "The Old
Beau" (about Beau Brummel's last days) sings tenderly and compassionately
over the poor lion's hard times.

Requiem for a Tribe Brother comes from 1992.  Williamson wrote about
the death of an aborigine he knew personally, and he responded with the
most personal work on the program.  The present performers sang it at
Williamson's own funeral.  It's an odd, unsettling mix.  Messiaen rubs
elbows with the English church choral tradition and pop.  Lewis Mitchell
points out in the liner notes at least one bit of Australian symbolism
- the occasional drone of the didgeridoo in the lower men's voices.  As
you might expect, the work is all over the place in its effect, as well
as in its sources.  It doesn't add up to anything coherent.  Yet, sections
of it command your attention.

Williamson's works here all demand a crack choir, and Broadbent's Joyful
Company of Singers certainly qualifies.  They give purposeful, strong
readings.  If the Requiem, for example, becomes flaccid, it's not the
singers' fault.  The sound is clean, rhythm is sharp, intonation spot-on.
The one thing they could improve upon is their diction.  In the McCauley
and Sitwell, they sound as if they had a mouthful of hot mushy peas.
The one place where their diction becomes consistently clear is in the
Requiem, precisely where least needed.

Naxos provides texts only for the Requiem, perhaps because of a
kerfuffle over copyright, although I can't imagine Tennyson in copyright.
Nevertheless, if you know the liturgy, the text is superfluous, no matter
how good the diction.  The company could have saved some ink and paper
or at least given us the Tennyson.  The lack of text is particularly
inimical to hearing English Eccentrics.  I can't make out one word in
ten, even with earphones.  Other than that, a fine disc.

Steve Schwartz

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