Here is a remarkable trio of CDs – only available separately – featuring the piano music of John R. Williamson. The first two volumes were first issued on the Dunelm label in 2001 and 2003 whilst the third volume was recorded for Diversions (part of Divine Art) in 2009. John R. Williamson was born in Manchester in 1929 but for some time has lived in North Wales.
An original composer might be said to be one whose style is unmistakable and who has long assimilated his earlier models. I believe this to be true of Williamson’s music and there is ample demonstration of this on these three well-filled discs. He has forged a style that convincingly fuses disparate elements into an organic whole. His harmonies are dissonant in that they involve suggestions of bitonality but would be more properly described as rising from symmetrical inversion, called by the composer, palindromic. Textures and harmonies seem to result from the clash of palindromic writing both in the horizontal and vertical planes. This might sound over-technical, yet it is worth mentioning since the clarity of the language allows the listener to perceive how the music is structured as it proceeds, in other words, not just from subsequent analysis. This is a remarkable feat; many works hide their structures, Williamson announces his with bold statements and clear harmonic designs.
Lest the prospective listener be fooled into thinking that Williamson’s music occupies a rather arid plain, it should be stated at once that the lyrical impulse is very strong and the emotional world is often intense and heartfelt. Indeed much of Williamson’s power as a composer derives from a combination of the palindromic or symmetrical aspects and a predilection for plaintive modal melodies. Time and again in these discs the listener is carried along by sweeps of modal contours that are enlivened and even subverted by the churning harmonies that pass through them. The effect is heightened by the frequent shifting of the modes used for the melodies. A remarkably hypnotic result is achieved, as if Cecil Sharp had met Bernhard Ziehn in some dim forgotten pastoral landscape. In a previous review of a CD of Williamson songs (Dunelm Records DRD0265) I remarked on some of the above characteristics. The main difference on these three discs is that, freed from accompanimental duties, the piano soars into a multitude of figurations and patterns that befit a more flamboyant solo approach. The piano writing is often highly virtuosic yet the difficulties arise not from a desire for showmanship; they come about due to the demands of the music’s structure, logic and emotional affects. Williamson has written many sets of relatively short pieces in which an emotional landscape is set up by the gestures and shapes; a clue to each affect is revealed in the movement headings which are often descriptive of mood. They appear in English: funereal, martial, flamboyant, ruminative, agonising . I am reminded of Scriabin’s indications in his many short piano pieces. That the two composers share this trait and share a seeming obsession with their respective harmonic devices is a point of interest in itself. Of other British composers it is hard to find many points of reference with regard to Williamson. Cyril Scott, whose greatest music is at last being heard, was a pioneer in the use of quartal harmonies, but his free approach is less systematic than that adopted by Williamson. Vaughan Williams blended modal melodies – whether folk tunes or his own – with remarkably original harmonies often featuring parallel triads. Ronald Stevenson has made a study of Ziehn’s Canonic Studies, led there by the example of Busoni. Williamson’s music does not sound like any of these composers; he has his own voice even if he shares some technical approaches with them.
After much enjoyable listening I have picked out some of my favourite pieces on these discs, grouped by volume.
The first volume begins splendidly with a very aggressive prelude aptly subtitled ‘The Fury’. It is the first in a set of 12 New Piano Preludes. ‘The Fury’ presents menacing chords that chase each other relentlessly. I was reminded a little of the etude that opens Emploi du temps (1915) by Arthur Lourié, which has a similar effect: terse, obsessive and angry. The whole set is strongly inspired and contains many contrasts of moods. Particularly fine are the constantly evolving harmonies of No.3 in D and the delicious descending runs of No.6 in F. The emotional heart of the set is the deeply moving No.9 in A flat ‘Lament for Laddie’; the poignant modal tune is set against piquant figuration. When the tune is doubled at the fourth, organum-like, more false relations occur which heighten the emotive effect. The ending is a chromatic descent as if exhausted by sadness. The set ends with No.12 in B where the clamour of brassy chords is heard, like clashing armour and swords; a disturbing vision that brings the set full circle to ‘The Fury’ in mood.
The Piano Sonata No. 2 in F# shows Williamson dealing with the principles of motivic structure as is often traditional in works of this kind. However the palindromic element is there too, not least in the arch-form structure of its five movements. The first movement is predominantly stormy but with a certain rugged grandeur, as if sea were crashing against rocks. A gentle movement marked Nostalgic follows. After a scherzo and another slow movement, the finale follows with a main subject that suggests kinship with the scherzo of the 1st Symphony of Sibelius. Reference is also made to the opening gestures of the sonata’s first movement. The end is dark and forbidding.
There follows a set of 12 Palindromic Preludes. Williamson has admitted to a fascination with this form; there are 11 sets of 12 preludes so far – of which I assume from the date of composition this set is the first – and they all follow a tonal scheme of C rising by semitones to B but with no distinction between major or minor. There are some special moment in the set: the gently rocking yet dissonant No.2 in C# ‘Lullaby for Baby Jesus’, the puckish No.4 in Eb, the terrifying octaves of No.5 in E; a Baba-Yaga striding through Snowdonia and the marvellous combination of repeated notes and scales in No. 6 in F. If this set has a core it might be the very disquieting No.9 in G# ‘Madness’, which presents a cauldron of oscillating minor ninths that eventually compromise onto an uneasy cadence. No.10 is very beautiful; gentle octaves oscillate this time through a arching melody; is this the cure for ‘Madness’? – the jarring ninths resolved? The set concludes with No.12 in B; a measured pageant of rich textures.
The Sonatina No.2 is an exuberant work full of dash and vigour and concludes a marvellous CD.
The next disc opens with Song to Nature which reflects on the composer’s cycle journeys through the countryside. 12 Palindromic Preludes, set 5, follow. No.1 in C reveals some fascinating combinations of chords and melodies in dense interplay. No.4 in E flat has beautiful bell-like sonorities; a chiming right hand set against a revolving series of left hand chords. No.6 in F has organum qualities in both hands and is appropriately marked archaic . No.9 in A flat is simple but effective; a two part dialogue with eventual doubling. Although powerful, the set has less variety of texture and mood than the first set on volume 1. Chordal writing predominates and the textures are quite heavy.
The Piano Sonata No.4 ‘The Palindromic’ starts with a dissonant first movement. Williamson’s dissonance is curious in that he is still able to make the harmonies evolve and move, thus avoiding the static quality of some atonal music. A slow pastoral follows, yet the colours are dark and ruminative. Block chords are used a fair amount and the dissonance is acute. A fleet scherzo brings relief from the oppressive atmosphere of the preceding movement. Extremes of register are used tellingly. The finale begins with vaunting figures leading to a gentle answer in the composer’s favourite parallel fourths. The end is approached through a series of intense blocks of active sound.
The Seven Interval Studies are really fascinating. The composer acknowledges the Etudes of Debussy as a possible influence although the effect is entirely Williamson’s own. Highlights include No.1 in 7ths; a boiling mixture of clashing lines in both hands, the gentle ringing of No.3 in 5ths and No.4 in 4ths where the composer comes closest to sounding like Cyril Scott. In No.5 it’s a breath of fresh air to hear diatonic 3rds, intervals not often exploited by this composer. Of course they get spiced up during the movements progress. This study might be an ironic commentary on Debussy’s ‘Les tierces alternées’ – No.11 from the second book of preludes. The last study, No.7 in octaves, gives another glimpse of that same relentlessly pursued spirit that can be found in Alkan’s Grande Etude op. 76 no.3 (1838) and in the finale of Chopin’s Sonata No.2 in B flat minor (1839). Although Williamson’s piece is not so scary as those two demonic utterances it is nice to know that that particular phantom still has some running in him. The second volume ends with the composer playing his Lament for Sarah, written in memory of a granddaughter.
Here Murray McLachlan begins by presenting a selection of palindromic preludes from the 11 sets so far completed. No.6 from set 2 is not dissimilar to No.6 from set 1. No.12 from set 2 is subtitled ‘Homage to Chopin’ and seems to suggest an affinity with the Polish composer’s Etude in C minor op. 25 no.12. Whilst Chopin’s patterns are continuous, Williamson’s pause between each harmonic change and a chorale theme is introduced. No.3 in D from set 8 is particularly strong with martial rhythms and crashing waves of sound. No.1 in C from set 6 has some deft modulations and turbulent textures. No.5 in Eb from set 6 is played with simplicity by the composer. The selection concludes with the whirlwind No.8 in G from set 6. Here the palindromic effects are very audible in a series of viciously exciting contrary motion scales.
In contrast to the dark moods that predominate in the 2 nd and 4 th sonatas, the 6 th starts on a more jaunty positive note and the textures are more spare with some two part writing. The harmonies sometimes relax into a mood if not quite romantic at least tinged with calmer thoughts. Rugged climaxes try to throw the opening theme off its confident stride. It retains its strong contours throughout the movement and a typical Williamson cadence (with an unresolved 4 th ) is reached. The slow movement is followed by a sprightly scherzo with many 4 ths predominating again both in perfect and augmented forms. Some tense sequences ratchet up the anxiety in this exciting movement which as the composer points out is not much of a joke in the traditional understanding of the word scherzo. Stamping chords propel the music to a helter-skelter finish. The finale reveals no let up in energy although thick-textured chordal writing inhibits the flow somewhat. The end is violent and dissonant.
Thirteen Variations on a Tone Row follow. The row is itself palindromically constructed and leads to much inventiveness. Its gapped nature lends the work a mysterious quality. An opening fanfare leads to the variations, which follow each other without a break. I particularly liked variation 7 where the hands are thrown from one end of the piano to the other. Another fanfare appears in variation 11. The 13 th variation brings the work to a stormy conclusion.
The Seven Two-part Inventions provide a change of texture. Their simplicity however does not lead to a dilution of style which is still as vigourous as ever. Williamson revels in the ability to play with simple lines and their interaction. The counterpoint is lyrical and shapely in No.2 in G and playful in No.3 in A. His lines present some of the composer’s favourite harmonies in stretched out form and reveal the sense of unity between horizontal and vertical. By No.5 in C the arpeggiation of the lines allows the composer to express himself harmonically. A typical device can be heard in No.6 in D where a modal theme is followed by its dark side by having its intervals diminished. This process happens twice before the theme returns in its original form. The spiky interactions of No.7 in E conclude the set.
Throughout the three discs the pianist is the redoubtable Murray McLachlan. He has already done wonders for other composers less well-known than they should be; his sets of Miaskovsky and Chisholm, to name just two with whom he been associated, attest to this. He brings all his skills to bear in these recordings; he had tenderness, strength and those in-between shades that can bring this emotionally varied music to life. He is not afraid of the perilous cascades of Williamson’s more precipitous writing; listen to how he tears into No.8 from Palindromic Preludes set 6 (volume 3). He also finds limpid colours for music such as No.11 from the New Piano Preludes (volume 1). The dense chording of much of Williamson’s writing must pose a great challenge to the voicing abilities of a pianist and it is to McLachlan’s credit that he is able to keep textures generally clear and free from clotting. The world is lucky to have a fine composer such as Williamson and he himself is lucky to have a pianist so dedicated to playing his music as Murray McLachlan.
These three CDs come at mid-price and they are attractively packaged with Jim Pattison’s original landscape photographs. Those not wishing to try all the volumes at once might start with volume 1, since it has, in my view, the best music and the most variety. The recordings (again by Pattison) are clear and have plenty of gain leading to a full sound even on small hi-fi equipment. These discs offer powerful music and committed performances. Williamson is making an important contribution to piano repertoire in a style all his own. All the works on the discs post-date 1991 when the composer was already in his 60s; it would be interesting to hear earlier works to chart the evolution of Williamson’s style. Perhaps a fourth volume might be a chance to do this.