On stranger shores

A new disc explores the work of Malcolm Williamson, the Australian émigré who felt like a stranger everywhere, and embraced everything

- 3 April 2014

The much-abused term ‘crossover’ can be applied to Australian-born composer Malcolm Williamson in many senses – not that it has won his music a wide audience.

Pianist and conductor Howard Shelley, who with Australian pianist Piers Lane and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra has recorded Williamson’s five piano concertos and Sinfonia concertante for Hyperion, recalls a man of many parts.

Malcom Williamson

Malcolm Williamson

‘We knew Malcolm and his family and liked him very much. He was a brilliant man, he spoke six languages and went to college at the age of 15. He left Australia quite young and no longer was Australian in a sense because he spent 50 years here. When he visited Australia he felt a stranger and when he was in England he also felt a stranger.’

His work as a night club pianist found its way into his compositions, as did studies with Elisabeth Lutyens and the works of Messiaen.

‘He always felt strongly that popular music and classical music could get into bed together,’ Shelley recalls. ‘But this was at a time when that avant-garde in London felt anything approaching a melody could not be considered.’

His appointment in 1975 as master of the Queen’s music – the first Australian and youngest person to hold the post, at the age of 43 – caused some disquiet among the establishment, and a flood of commissions plus the looming Queen’s silver jubilee took its toll. There were acrimonious outbursts, late delivery of commissions and lengthening periods of silence.

CD cover

The demanding concertos reflect the turbulence and diversity of Williamson, the son of an Anglican  clergyman who embraced Roman Catholicism and then the Judaism of his wife, Dolores.

‘I feel sometimes that he could not decide where to sit, so embraced it all,’ Shelley says. ‘That can be  very uplifting.’

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