ADRIAN WILLIAMS (b.1956): Symphony No. 1, Chamber Concerto: Portraits of Ned Kelly. English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods.
Catalogue Number: 11Y004
Description: The British symphony is alive and well - and if anything is going from strength to strength, if the recent revelation of works by Hackbridge Johnson (08U009 et al.), Elcock ( 09T001 et al.) and (Pickard (07T008 et al.) are anything to go by. And now we have a ruggedly powerful 47-minute First Symphony by a composer who arrived at the genre at the age of 63 (having previously achieved an impressive output in other forms) and already clearly belongs in the company of his aforementioned illustrious peers and their antecedents - Daniel Jones, Robert Simpson, Peter Racine Fricker, and the Nordic symphonists of the 20th century. The first, second, and fourth movements are characterised by their restless rhythmic energy and the constant tension between ambiguously related tonal centres - very much a common preoccupation of modern British symphonists - producing a form of extended tonality (some composers like the term "metatonality") that functions less in the manner of pre-modern chromaticism than by juxtaposing relationships between - sometimes distant and shockingly unanticipated - key centres. The first movement begins with a leaping, wide-spanning theme in the strings, and immediately transforms into a vigorous development of the theme, characterised by quicksilver changes of textures and instrumentation. Alternately warlike, ominously subdued, agitated, eerily calm and stridently disputatious, it is soon joined by a second subject beginning with a rearrangement of the opening notes of the first, and the rest of the movement is taken up by a struggle for supremacy between these themes and their implied tonal centres. Throughout, the cascading tumult of orchestral colours and densities of texture play a rôle in the symphonic argument almost equal to the thematic and harmonic clashes. The following movement is a scampering, burlesque, brittle scherzo, described by the composer as "rumbustious and virtuosic". The time-worn cliché "The slow movement is the heart of the work" has never been more true than it is of the emotionally wrenching, utterly despairing movement that follows. Williams has connections to Australia - more on that shortly - and around the time when he was planning the third movement he was profoundly moved by the harrowing news footage of the wildfires that ravaged parts of the continent and the thousands upon thousands of dead and dying animals left in their wake. The music is an extended lament, with no attempt made to lighten or relieve the complete desolation of its imagery. We traverse a devastated, blasted desert of ash dotted with barely recognisable forms and inhabited only by ghastly spectres and evanescent coils of smoke. Passages dominated by the bass registers of the orchestra suggest a landscape stripped back to bare rock and scorched earth, devoid of any vestige of life, or even its lingering memory. After this emotionally shattering movement it is a relief to be assailed by the minatory mutterings that preface the finale. Several themes emerge, and the movement gathers momentum and weight but is suddenly arrested in its tracks, remaining in a doleful state of suspended animation and expectant, pent-up energy as the tension gradually rises. The ominous rumblings from the opening of the movement return, and the reappearance of the three-note motif that begins the symphony’s very first, and principal, theme heralds the arrival of the tumultuous, swirling mælstrom of the work’s final climax. The first and second subjects from the first movement engage in their last battle, the second emerging in hard-won triumph only at the very end. Williams developed a close friendship with the great Australian painter, Sidney Nolan (1917-92), who lived near the composer in the Welsh Borders region after moving to the UK from Australia in 1951. Nolan's series of paintings depicting episodes in the life of the notorious, celebrated bushranger, gang leader, murderer, and outlaw Ned Kelly were the source of inspiration for Williams' 1998 Chamber Concerto. Nolan's surreal representation of Kelly's iconic improvised body armour and the stark Australian bush landscape are reflected in the hard-edged, harsh, spiky idiom of Williams' ferociously virtuosic score, which depicts with rude vigour the violent escapades of the outlaw's life, against a tense, foreboding background landscape of rock, scrub, and baked earth.