Rory Macdonald & RSNO - Thomas Wilson: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 - MusicWeb International (GH)

The music of Thomas Wilson, it seemed, had practically faded into obscurity until, quite out of the blue, this CD of three significant orchestral works appeared.

American by birth, but settled in Scotland from a young age, Wilson came to prominence in 1955 with the performance of his 1st Symphony under Colin Davis, later withdrawn. But it wasn’t until 1987 – that one could hear two outstanding recordings of his orchestral music and that was on the Chandos label conducted by the much missed Bryden Thomson (Chan 8626), the Piano Concerto and Introit ('Towards the Light’). These certainly made an impression. But Wilson died in his mid-70’s just as he was attracting attention again and faded too quickly out of sight.

In his notes for the Chandos release Wilson wrote, concerning Introit that it offered “a process of entry (Introit) which leads the listener, by way of various levels of ‘conscious’ musical response to a final plane which is almost wholly intuitive”. For me this represents a kind of spirituality or a searching for the spiritual, which comes through the music also in the shape of a plainsong used in the last two sections. Could this be a reflection of Wilson’s own spiritual searching?

The Symphony No 3, Paul Conway tells us in his liner notes, maps “out a life journey from the momentous upheaval of birth, through confusion and complication, to eventual clarity and simplicity and, at the end, rebirth”. Like Introit the symphony begins with a series of searching, disembodied percussion sounds; in addition, both are in five sections allowing in the fifth part the opening to return, making a pleasing and satisfying shape. And in both works the slow sections, with their almost impressionistic and magical sounds are the parts which really make the listener reflect and ponder the universe and all that is in it.

In thinking about a composer whose music may seem to use a similar sound world a friend thought immediately of Alun Hoddinott in the darker hues. Funnily enough Bax’s name also cropped up and that of William Mathias, but Wilson’s orchestration is uniquely his own, witness for example the swirling climax, like nothing I’ve heard before, just five minutes before the end of this symphony.

But thinking again of inspiration from things spiritual Wilson’s Symphony No 4 is more directly inspired and linked to that wonderful medieval church, Paisley Abbey (and its subtitle is a ‘Passeleth Tapestry’, Passeleth being an old name for Paisley) and its history and again its opening motif which informs the entire symphony uses A-Eb B and B like a carillon, notes derived it seems, from the name ‘Paisley’; also as the work progresses Wilson uses that wonderful plainchant ‘Victimae pascali laudes’. We have been here before you cry, but this composer is nothing but otherwise imaginative in his approach.

Bells, indeed carillons, play a part as does another ancient melody called ‘Martyrs’. The work divides into several sections telling the story of the abbey through time, as a tapestry, for example the second part is concerned with the religious upheavals of the Reformation, the motor rhythms of the third denote the nineteenth century, the so-called machine age. The quiet ending is reflective and beautifully consoling. It was Bryden Thomson who conducted its premiere in 1988, but Rory MacDonald produces a performance of the highest and most electric quality for this most self-confident of symphonies.

Carillon is a celebration of the city he loved – Glasgow – and it was first heard there under Bryden Thomson in 1990. It is based on the notes G, A, S (Eb) and G representing the letters of the city. Although brimming with energy and excitement, I especially love the slow, middle section. Paul Conway describes it as an “elegiac central nocturne” and it is well contrasted with the “clamour of the city” as discovered in the excitable preceding Allegro. But the wit of the native Glaswegian is demonstrated in the scherzo which is also full of the “twinkling lights” of city life.

This, then, is an enterprising release of the first order and anyone with an interest in twentieth century orchestral music should seek it out, the works repaying your time and outlay many times over. Paul Conway’s liner notes are exemplary and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra play for Macdonald as if they have known this music for many years.

MusicWeb International
19 April 2019