Pianist Murray McLachlan has been a stalwart champion of new British music for some time now. One only needs to think of his fascinating recording of the music of Eric Chisholm, for example (which I reviewed in Fanfare 32:6 and 33:2). Here he takes on the cause of John Ramsden Williamson.
The first music we hear is the 12 New Preludes of 1993 (apparently composed in a single day, Nov. 2). Each is based on a key center, rising from C to B. There is some powerful expression at work here. The ninth piece, “Lament for Laddie,” is particularly effective (a note tells us that this was written on the death of a precious dog) and is also at 4:11, the longest of the set. McLachlan despatches the more virtuoso preludes (No. 10 in A, for example) with aplomb, but he seems most inspired in the slow, more beautiful numbers (No. 11 being a case in point). These preludes are balanced by the Palindromic Preludes of some three years later. The movements include a touching “Carol (Lullaby for the Baby Jesus),” and a movement simply titled “Madness,” which does, indeed, via much use of tremolo, sound decidedly disturbed. The Palindromic Preludes is more wide-ranging than the earlier set and so is perfectly balanced by the simple Second Piano Sonatina of 1990.
The Piano Sonata No. 2 of 1991 is clearly a carefully considered work. McLachlan is able to convey a clear sense of direction throughout the opening, noble Maestoso. Lasting some 20 minutes, it explores a wide range of territory. The nostalgia of the second movement is balanced by an active Alla scherzo. The Forth Sonata (1998) appears on Vol. 2, after another set of Palindromic Preludes (Set 5, lasting some 27:49). This set is more substantial musically, also McLachlan manages to project the sense of exploration here. The Fourth Sonata continues the composer’s fascination with the palindrome. It contains some memorable writing, particularly in the more lyrical sections. The longest and most substantial movement is the second, a Pastorale of hypnotic beauty, and McLachlan does the piece full justice.
The set of Seven Interval Studies (2001) is directly influenced by Debussy’s études. Williamson alternates moods and, again palindrome is in evidence. McLachlan gave the world premiere of this piece at Chethams School of Music, Manchester, in August 2002. Interesting to note that the final piece on this volume, the Lament for Sarah , is an extract from a work for solo harp. Heard as a piano solo, its remit is to appear as a reflection of the composer’s own sadness subsequent to the loss of a granddaughter, aged seven, in 1998. It is a thought-provoking way to end the second disc.
The third and final volume of piano music begins with 12 extracts from 19 sets of Palindromic Preludes (each of which contains 12 preludes). The sequence is evidently carefully considered, and McLachlan reacts to the varied moods like a pianist chameleon. McLachlan’s clean attack is particularly evident in the third extract, an “Hommage to Chopin.” The jagged nature of the first movement of the Sixth Piano Sonata (2004) speaks of a seriousness of intent that is to carry on into the slow movement and beyond. Even the Scherzo is determined and stubborn rather than overtly playful. The third volume seems to concentrate more on larger pieces than its predecessors. In the 13 Variations on a Tone Row of 2007, as the composer puts it, “new horizons are explored” and indeed, there is a searching element readily audible in the musical flow. The final set of Seven Two-Part Inventions (2008) is this volume’s sign-off piece, and its lightest. There is a Bachian purity at times here that is most beguiling.
The recording quality throughout is a little lacking in depth. Although the bass register is not weak, the piano has limited presence. Nevertheless, those tempted to explore Williamson’s music will not be disappointed. It is worth pointing out that sound samples of these discs can be found on the Divine Art Web site.