Malcolm Williamson (1931–2003)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F-sharp minor
Allegro con brio
Allegro con spirito
The piano swaggers into the opening of Malcolm Williamson’s Second Piano Concerto, ﬂanked by pizzicato strings, in a boisterous entrance that soon gives way to a lilting, dance-like melody.
Born in Sydney, Williamson spent most of his career in London – where he would become the youngest ever composer to be named Master of the Queen’s Music in 1975 – but he always considered himself Australian. His music, he’s often quoted as saying, was inspired not by ‘the bush or the deserts, but the brashness of the cities. The sort of brashness that makes Australians go through life pushing doors marked pull.’
Williamson studied piano, violin and French horn at the New South Wales State Conservatorium, before taking composition lessons from the Conservatorium’s then director, conductor Eugene Goossens. He visited London in 1950 and moved there permanently in 1953, studying with composers Elisabeth Lutyens and Erwin Stein.
Williamson’s jobs in the 1950s included piano teacher, proofreader, church organist and nightclub pianist – the latter experience certainly colouring this concerto for piano and string orchestra, which he wrote in just eight days in 1960 for a competition sponsored by the University of Western Australia. He won £500 and the work was premiered in 1962 by the University of Western Australia String Orchestra under the baton of Frank Callaway, with pianist Michael Brimer as the soloist. Williamson’s career was very much on the upswing – his ﬁrst full-scale opera, Our Man in Havana, premiered the following year and he soon gained a reputation as ‘the most commissioned composer in Britain.’
Williamson embraced eclectic styles in his music – a critic described him as a ‘chameleon’ in 1965, not intending it as a compliment – and was inspired by composers from Béla Bartók and Olivier Messiaen to George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. There is a shadow of Shostakovich in the exquisite unspooling of this concerto’s slow movement, before Williamson moves into more lyrical, hymn-like territory.
Williamson dedicated the concerto to Elaine Goldberg, a pianist and cousin of his wife Dolly, and listeners have heard in this movement a conscious nod to her Jewish heritage. Williamson cast some doubt on this, however, writing that the movement ‘has been called by the Israelis very Israeli in ﬂavour and by the Italians, very Italian.’ In the movement’s most intimate moments the piano is almost fragile, glistening alone as the orchestra falls silent.
Brashness and swagger return with the carnival atmosphere of the ﬁnale. A gentler melody in the strings, as musicologist Carolyn Philpott points out, quotes the French horn theme from the ﬁnale of Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird: ‘a particularly apt borrowing given that the concerto was composed exactly 50 years after the ballet was written and premiered.’ But there is also plenty of humour. ‘It is a parody of myself,’ Williamson wrote of this concerto, calling it ‘an overtly Australian work aiming at spontaneity and vigour rather than profundity.’
Cheers greeted the premiere of the Second Piano Concerto in Perth and you’ll hear why. It’s one of the most joyful and exuberant works of a composer who knew very well not only how to push doors marked pull, but also how to put on a show.
© Angus McPherson, 2022