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A Personal Recollection by Christopher Hirons (2014)

My first meeting with George was when he was invited to conduct the Northern Sinfonia, of which I was then leader, for a tour of Germany. I was to play the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante with our principal viola player, Roger Best. The other soloist for the tour was the great trumpet player, Maurice André.

We were all looking forward to working with him but also rather apprehensive as he had a reputation for being something of a martinet. As soon as we started rehearsals with him, it was obvious that this was an outstanding musician from whom we would all learn a great deal. He was not a martinet but very demanding and would not settle for anything less than excellence. On tour with him, he treated the musicians with great respect and would always at some point in the trip take the whole orchestra to a good restaurant and treat us all to a meal.

About three days into the tour George asked me if I would like to play some Mozart Sonatas with him in our spare time. I was extremely flattered to be asked and jumped at the opportunity of working with such a musician. At this time George was at the height of his reputation, giving harpsichord recitals worldwide. George bought the Sonatas and we found time to play through some. I was amazed at his knowledge of technical details of violin playing, bowing and even occasionally, fingerings. I later learned that as a child at the Royal College of Music he auditioned as a violinist as well as a pianist!

After about three of these extremely pleasant and instructive sessions George said “When we get back to London we’ll put on a Wigmore Hall recital”. I was bowled over and immediately rang my wife to tell her the news.

Subsequently we gave two recitals at the Wigmore. For the first, we played the three Brahms Sonatas and for the second, the Sonatas of Franck, Debussy and Fauré. After both concerts he treated my extended family to a meal at the Café Royal, a considerable eye opener to we Northerners!

This was the beginning of a very happy working and family life with George that lasted for over thirty years, during which we gave many recitals, both violin and harpsichord and violin and piano.

Little has been said about George’s piano playing. He was a superb pianist and accompanist and had been a regular partner with Jacqueline du Pré, Alfredo Campoli, Yehudi Menuhin and many others. He was able to create such multicoloured sounds, particularly with composers such as Debussy, and played Mozart and Beethoven with wonderful clarity. He used the sustaining pedal very sparingly.

My wife, daughters and I got to know him well when he stayed with us many times in Hexham whilst I was still with the Northern Sinfonia. I would drive him to our home in Hexham from rehearsals in Newcastle and quickly discovered his passion for being driven at the highest possible speed. I think we must have held the speed record for the drive from Carlisle to Hexham!

We later learned of his delight in the scariest rides available at fun-fairs. He used to take the boys from Westminster Cathedral Choir School to the fair in Battersea Park as a treat. The three of us once went down to Weston-super-Mare where George spotted a seriously frightening looking ride at the end of the pier. I was having nothing to do with it but he insisted on going on it. We watched with our hearts in our mouths - he was about seventy-six years old at the time!

We later moved to live in London and after four years, George invited us to share his enormous house in Cheyne Walk. Evenings in Chelsea were usually spent with he and I playing two-handed patience whilst my wife dipped into his considerable and diverse library. Then he would play the piano and sing. He had a fine voice. He loved all the old Victorian songs such as “Pale Hands I Loved". Another joy of those evenings was hearing him playing Mendelssohn, a favourite composer of his. His playing of “The Bees’ Wedding" with his wonderful lightness of touch and agility was so beautiful. How I wish we had had a recording machine! After four years in Chelsea, we all moved to Wimbledon Village where we shared a house for the last twenty years of his life.

Those years in Wimbledon with him were very happy ones. He treated my family and I as his family, sharing meals at home (he enjoyed my wife’s cooking, with a particular fondness for nursery food; she could not go wrong if he was served fish fingers!) and holidays at the cottage he bought in the Cotswolds. In many ways George was not very practical so I very happily took on the job of general handyman about the house whilst still giving recitals, with George playing both piano and harpsichord.

Yes, there was that aspect of him, mentioned by others, of his sometimes being somewhat disconcerting. I remember he and I meeting an old friend in Wimbledon Village. The friend introduced his colleague to George saying “You will remember ……… You worked with him several times in the past”. George regarded the chap for a moment and said in his rather dry way “not particularly”. This became the stock reply in our house to any suggestion made that one did not agree with. Meals in restaurants with George could be interesting. He made the same demands on the kitchen and waiting staff as he did with musicians, requiring nothing short of excellence. When this did not happen he was very ready to inform them of their shortcomings! The three of us went to a somewhat pretentious country house hotel in the Cotswolds for Sunday lunch, which strove to give the impression that the diners were invited guests at a private country house. George asked for new potatoes without the skins; the waiter, rather surprised, called the request across to the kitchen. When we had finished the Maître d’ asked if we had enjoyed our meal. George, embracing their pretension, replied “I would like some more beef and roast potatoes”. They were duly served.

George’s final public concert was at the Wigmore Hall to celebrate his 80th birthday. The other performers were András Schiff, Andrew Marriner, William Bennett, a group from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields led by Ken Silllito, and myself. It was a wonderful evening, with a packed hall, and George had lost none of his power as a musician and performer.

He died later that year, and happily my wife and I were able to care for him at home throughout his very short and mercifully painless illness - he would have loathed hospital.

It was a very great privilege and pleasure to have shared so much of his life and made music with him. He was a great musician but also a great man, capable of enormous kindness and generosity, who gave assistance in many ways to so many young and aspiring musicians... we also had a very great deal of fun with him!

Christopher Hirons FRMCM studied with Clifford Knowles at the Royal Manchester College of Music and later with Kato Havas in London. Most of Christopher’s playing career has been spent leading and directing chamber orchestras including the Northern Sinfonia, the Academy of Ancient Music, the English String Orchestra and Orchestra da Camera. He has also appeared regularily as guest leader with many other chamber and symphony orchestras. He was a member of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields for seven years. He has appeared many times as a soloist and director in most of the major festivals and concert halls worldwide. A great deal of his time has been devoted to chamber music, giving recitals with such artists as James Bowman, Emma Kirkby, William Bennett and Christopher Hogwood beside a long partnership with the late international harpsichordist and pianist George Malcolm. He has accepted invitations to coach and direct chamber orchestras in Finland, Japan and America. Christopher has made several recordings as a soloist including the highly acclaimed performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the Academy of Ancient Music. Teaching has always been a very important part of his career. He was a tutor at the Birmingham Conservatoire for several years and for ten years was senior violin teacher at Uppingham School. He is String Consultant to the Hampshire Music Service and joined the staff of the Royal College of Music Junior Department in 2000, where he also directs the String Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra. Christopher is in ever increasing demand to coach and direct youth orchestras and is currently Director of the National Youth Chamber Orchestra of Great Britain and the East Sussex String Chamber Orchestra. He also teaches at Kings College School Wimbledon and at his home in West Wimbledon.

Personal Recollections by John Elwes and Michael Ronayne (2015)


As a chorister at Westminster Cathedral, George was always Mr Malcolm!! But he was, even then, an ally. Antagonism between the choir and clergy was rife, as is perhaps the case with all cathedral choirs and the clergy. The two elements contrasted greatly with each other; the choir was a kind of outlet for the boys, a freedom and fun and not really attached to the world of the clergy. Fun because George made it fun, albeit it a highly disciplined fun. The choir school itself however, almost to compensate for this liberty it seems on reflection, was fairly harsh in comparison and dished out corporal punishment on a regular basis. The nuns who ran the school and taught there were often bitter, rib punching tyrants and greatly feared by the boys.

George, though, did require enormous discipline  but was not dictatorial at all. His responsibility as director of music was formidable; to provide first class music with an excellent choir for the 15 hours of service per week, which were held in the cathedral in the 1950s. To achieve this he maintained, by nature and for his own music, an amazingly high standard; a standard which he demanded equally from us. He was exacting in all aspects of singing; breath control, tuning, phrasing and, especially, exemplary diction. But, as all these demands were clearly effective and successful, we inwardly enjoyed this discipline. If George was not pleased however, he did not shout and scream but would make his displeasure very, very clear indeed in a controlled and, almost, frightening manner!!!! However, he was extremely generous in his praise when pleased.  It was this balance that he understood well; a balance that helped enormously to create the unique qualities that his choir had.

To some extent the boys were a family for George. He liked to give us all nicknames and would keep little statues of animals in his office which he felt represented our individual characters. A childish pleasure perhaps but one that amused us all. My own little creature  was a stickleback as I was considered to be tough, argumentative and pugnacious!!! George undoubtedly had  a somewhat schoolboy humour, especially if it was risqué in any way. He always said that his best singers were to be found amongst those tough, rough boys, rushing around the playground yelling loudly. If there was a Voice in the child then he knew how to harness the energy that exuded from that child. George had a rather husky singing voice himself (years of smoking fiendishly strong Gauloises cigarettes no doubt) but always demonstrated somehow, vocally that is, very efficiently any vocal technique that he wanted from us. He used to regularly challenge us boys to a contest to see who could maintain a sung note for the longest period. He never beat us!

As mentioned above, he was always particularly demanding with text (also in foreign languages), its pronunciation, articulation and interpretation. He once berated me for intoning in a slovenly way (he thought) the Salve Regina, sung every evening before going to bed. Although my day had been strenuous with school work and many hours singing in the cathedral, he still was unhappy with my efforts. I was furious and sulked badly!! But this primary attention to text gave drama and excitement to George's choral sound; some would often consider it over the top, even raucous at times. He wanted strong vibrant singing from his boys; the harnessed strength heard in the playground. His goal was simply to produce singers not just choristers.

With such an incredible training, with such an incredible musician, it was very easy for me to state quite categorically that I was ready and prepared for my career as a tenor long before my tenor voice was mature enough to sustain such a career. As I have  progressed through my career I have been able to state, very clearly,  my debt to this exceptional training that I received as a chorister under the guidance of George Malcolm at Westminster Cathedral.

John Hahessy, as he was known in his boy alto days, (before taking the name Elwes in honour of his adopted parents), was the outstanding head chorister at Westminster Cathedral in George's final years there. He went on to have a distinguished career as a tenor, making well over a hundred recordings. As an alto he featured in the famous Westminster recordings (under George) of Britten's "Missa Brevis" and the Victoria Responses for Holy Week. With Britten and Pears he sang in the world premiere recording of Britten's Canticle "Abraham and Isaac" and also recorded songs from "Friday Afternoons" with Britten, who dedicated his "Corpus Christi Carol" to John.

Michael Ronayne remembers: "I joined Westminster Cathedral Choir in 1955 and I was privileged to be under the guidance of George Malcolm. He could be a very private person, almost remote and at the same time capable of being appreciative, encouraging and enthusiastic. If one progressed through the choir it meant a place and an introduction to Whizzog Farm, a fictitious settlement created by George in the choirmaster's office in the guise of the caricature he had created of that particular boy. The office had a strong but not unpleasant smell of Boars Head tobacco, hand-rolled cigarettes favoured by George that mesmorised us when he made them, and pleased George because apparently prisoners smoked it! Most boys in George's opinion were small and were classed as Poohs. Most of the choir members received names created by him that in some cases have lasted a lifetime.

His attention to detail was always faultless and any talent that was within anybody was nurtured and given the opportunity to blossom.

George would sometimes crouch down with his back to the piano keyboard and play without being able to see the notes. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the school football and cricket teams when we played our home games at Battersea Park. Victory would guarantee Raspberry Ripple ice lollies from the funfair. After any broadcast there would be presents for the boys from the choir who participated. Usually the presents were large boxes of chocolates that decreased in size. The choice of the chocolates were selected by the boys in order of seniority. The more junior members could then potentially see what awaited them as they progressed upwards within the choir. If one made the elite section of the choir, known as the Schola, there were further rewards: dining out at prestigious restaurants, visits to the cinema, seats at his recitals to name but a few.

Perfection was demanded. Unhappy with the original 1958 recording of the Victoria Tenebrae, George paid for the recording to be done again with different soloists, recorded in the Cathedral in 1959, and commissioned this version to be released.

There are of course many other anecdotes; A withering look when displeased, a direct assessment of performances with candid words spoken if it was felt apppropriate, a face wreathed in smiles when he was happy with a performance. In summary, a person not quite a paradox, certainly complex at times, but an absolute privilege to have known. To have performed with and to have had his genius influence not only one's progression also tastes and disciplines that have lasted a lifetime."

Michael Ronayne was another of the solo treble voices in the famous Westminster Cathedral Choir recordings of Victoria and Britten.

Recording with Klemperer

According to George Malcolm (harpsichord continuo on the St. Matthew Passion recording) to his & Peter Pears horror, Klemperer insisted on conducting the recitatives, and when George added a decorative ornament Klemperer told him solemnly "Not to joke with Bach"!. Apparently Pears and Malcolm went back in the studio in the evenings and re-recorded them without the conductor knowing!

Malcolm must have been a thorn in Klemperer's side, since I've heard the same remark was made when in their 1960 recording of the Brandenburg Concertos Malcolm attempted to decorate the continuo part and was met with Klemperer's fierce disapproval.

Yes, and how Malcolm imagined the continuo realizations, one can hear in the recording Malcolm himself led from the harpsichord for ASV. Quite different from the Klemperer recording.


George Malcolm for me! (Re. Goldbergs)

No doubt I'm biased because I had some lessons with him... but if you temporarily put 'HIPP' out of the frame, you just have to admire his audacious use of every single gadget and tweak that is available on the huge Robert Goble 'revivalist' harpsichord with its 8 pedals, with their 'half-hitch' and their potential for 'crescendo' and 'diminuendo' effects. The awesome end result, although not 'authentic', is above all MUSICAL, and no less authentic than playing the Goldbergs on a modern piano.

He once related to me a story of a disastrous 'live broadcast' that he did in France, when he was obliged to use a Landowska-style PLEYEL harpsichord, whose pedals were 'negative' ones, i.e. in their 'default ' positions ( up / at rest) they operated all the registers, i.e. 8', 4', 16' . He said that, unfortunately in his 'boozing days', in that particular concert, at a climactic moment he depressed all the pedals and was left with a totally silent keyboard 'a la Joseph Cooper'... ! (Tony Halstead R3 Forum 2016)

‪I was once a harpsichord pupil of Richard Lester, who was not only a rare private pupil but also an esteemed page turner for Malcolm. My lessons frequently had references to what Malcolm had taught him. He still regards Malcolm as one of the two most influential people in his career. Why the modern generation doesn't see him how he should be I could not say. Perhaps the instruments he uses in his recordings? Times have changed and they might see his instruments with the pedals etc as old fashioned. I know that not every moderm harpsichordist does not see him this way. There are many that appreciate him for his true abilities, musicianship and contribution to the early music movement, like myself. (Samuel Bristow‬ 2014)

The heyday of the London Consort of Viols was in the 1950s, and by July 1956 they had already made more than 100 broadcasts. Thereafter, they performed only once or twice a year on radio, as the original members retired or moved away. Their repertoire consisted overwhelmingly of English music, and the programmes often included choral music, in which the viols were only rarely involved, or keyboard pieces, played on the organ or harpsichord by the likes of Thurston Dart, George Malcolm, Lady Susi Jeans and Ralph Downes. (Semibrevity 2016)

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Edward Greenfield

David Bevan

Edward Greenfield: from 'Portrait Gallery' (2014)

I first came to know George Malcolm when studying at Oxford from 1979 to 1982. Of course I had heard of him as I had been a chorister at Westminster Cathedral though I just missed him as Master of the Music by two years or so. His legacy, however, was very apparent in the strident tone of the boys' singing which, on my first evening at the school, fairly took my brother and me by surprise. I had never before imagined a sound like this as we were both of the traditional English cathedral 'breathy' school, in other words untrained. George later informed me that he attempted to encourage the boys to sing in a manner compatible with the singers he accompanied and to apply the principles of professional vocal technique. In this he was remarkably successful as his famous recording of the Victoria Tenebrae Responses amply demonstrates.

It was at my next school that I encountered him as a harpsichordist through a recording of Bach's Italian Concerto, a highly idiosyncratic performance with manual changes and dynamics via the medium of a large Goble instrument which was a far cry from authenticity. I was struck by his digital virtuosity and superlative musicianship which I was later to encounter at close quarters at Oxford.

George was an honorary fellow of Balliol College and frequently gave recitals there, a few of which included me as nervous page turner. This task was terrifying as his music (he rarely played by heart) was festooned with fingering and directions, including repeats, which necessitated dextrous technique on my part! He was always nervous and this condition endured throughout the recital; he would frequently remark: "Do you think anybody will bother to return for the second half!" His nerves would frequently result in wrong notes which must have been purgatorial for him and I often wondered why he put himself through this hell! Of course the stylishness, rock solid rhythm and sheer energy of his playing swept all before it and he will always be remembered as a great exponent of the harpsichord, even if he was at heart a pianist.

George was an Oxford classicist and an intellectually inclined conversationalist with little time for small talk. When conversing it was always necessary to 'lead' the conversation for fear of a general 'dry up'! He was a serious man and extremely well read which made it a privilege to know him, especially those who benefited from his patronage and financial charity. George was a great man.
David Bevan (2014)


David Bevan was educated at Westminster Cathedral Choir School, Downside and The Queen's College, Oxford, where he was a music scholar. Until recently, he was tutor in 'A' level music and school organist at Reeds School, Cobham, Surrey. From 1972 to 1976 he was Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral.

I had the great privilege of being taught By George, initially at Dartington where he gave me free lessons and later suggested a debut recital at the Wigmore Hall which he generously sponsored. He was a shy person, a wonderful teacher and generous in his praise of good performing. When he was ill once, I had the very great honour of standing in for him when his agent, the then Ibbs and Tillett, contacted me to ask if I could go up to Northumberland to give a recital the same day.

I once had to turn pages for George’s solo recital at the QEH. The last piece was the Italian Concerto played from a dilapidated copy that had seen better


I have his first recording of it - Decca recorded 1982 - with notes by George Malcolm. He's recently had another go. Looking forward to hearing how he goes about it now - will give the old one a spin first, perhaps. He's my sort of musician too.

Ah...nostalgia.... I studied with the beatific George in the late 1970s to early 1980s. His Goldbergs were 'a thing to marvel at' as his harpsichord 'of choice' was a very complicated beast indeed with no less than EIGHT pedals, each one of them in some way changing the 'registration', so that from one second to the next we could be hearing a simple 8' sound followed by an 8' + 4' and then maybe an 8' + 16'... Those monster Goble harpsichords also had a 'half-hitch' setting for the pedals so that if you 'pressed harder' (on the pedals) the jacks moved about 0.01 millimeters closer to the strings, giving the illusion of a 'crescendo' which of course is a theoretical impossibility on the harpsichord! (Tony Halstead?)

In any event, Schiff’s unfailing tastefulness is never a trade-off for involvement or vitality, both of which are felt in communicative abundance. As he takes repeats in both halves of every one of the variations, his performance, at 62:22, fills the CD (released in Decca’s "The Originals" series) without crowding it, and the warmth of the sonic focus that was such an appealing factor on the original LP sides is well preserved here. The illuminating annotation by Schiff’s mentor George Malcolm, a celebrated harpsichordist who made a compelling argument for Bach-on-the-piano, is reprinted in full, and that’s another plus. (Richard Freed)

The Radio 3 Forum


One of my teachers was George Malcolm. He was a marvellous musician and a great harpsichordist. He told me: “You don’t have to play this music on the harpsichord, do it on the piano but do it well!” He taught me to achieve clear articulation, part-playing and legato with the hands alone, and without using the feet. In recent years, I have set out to prove that I could play Bach without touching the pedal, and it is possible. After all, the sustaining pedal was not available to Bach on any of his instruments. On the modern piano it is a great asset, but it can do irreparable damage when used indiscriminately. Today I feel confident about adding a discreet amount of pedal – it doesn’t matter, as long as it all sounds good. (Andras Schiff - Guardian 2015)

days, and when reaching for the the penultimate page, I was alarmed to see that the last page simply wasn’t there. I sat there worrying that I’d turned two pages at once. George, the consummate professional, just carried on from memory without batting an eyelid. When I asked him where it was, he just smiled and said “probably at home somewhere.” 

George didn’t drive, but loved to be driven fast. After that same concert I had to take him home to Cheyne Walk on the embankment. After the harpsichord had been loaded into the van we set off in another car, and as usual, he wanted me to drive fast. Seeing the van in front of us, he said. “We can’t have that, see if you can get ahead of him.” George lived at the very end of Cheyne walk where there was a no entry sign. The van went ahead, along the embankment and approached George’s road from the ‘legal’ end; I however turned right just before the no entry sign and reversed the short length down Cheyne walk to his home, beating the van, and gaining considerable Brownie points for quick thinking.

I never heard George swear; always the perfect gentleman. Once at a concert rehearsal in Northumberland, he was provided with a piano stool and as he sat down it made a rude noise. He turned to me and said with typical schoolboy humour, “this chair f**ts at you.” A great man and a wonderful musician. (Richard Lester 2015)

Richard Lester remembers: