This recording was originally issued on the Dunelm label (DRD0265) in 2007, when it was reviewed by my colleague Patrick Waller.
John R. Williamson was born in Manchester and spent most of his professional life teaching in the North West of England. Patrick drew attention to other recordings of his music and, for ease of reference it may be helpful to readers if I reproduce the information he provided. “In the last few years his works have begun to appear on Dunelm. Of particular note are Volume 2 of a series of piano music played by Murray MacLachlan and his second cello sonata. In terms of songs, two groups of twelve Housman settings were reviewed enthusiastically by Rob Barnett in 2002 and Jonathan Woolf in 2004. These are now available together on a single disc which I can recommend highly (DRD0257).”
Williamson has a particular affinity with the poetry of A.E. Housman. Indeed, he tells us in the booklet that it was his discovery of Housman’s poetry in the 1970s that moved him to resume song-writing, a form he’d left alone since the 1950s. He has now completed some 120 Housman settings and all but the first three and last two tracks on this present CD set words by Housman.
The first three in Mark Rowlinson’s programme are early songs, dating from the 1950s. The first and third are to poems by Byron in between which comes a setting by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These may not be the deepest compositions on the disc but I found them the most attractive. All three have a graceful, flowing melodic line and the music has an appealing air of gentle melancholy.
Right at the end of the programme come two settings of poems by Siegfried Sassoon. It’s not clear when these were composed but since they won an award for the composer in 2004 it seems reasonable to assume that they may date from around the start of the final decade of the last century. I stood with the dead is a particularly imposing song; its music is impassioned.
In between we hear twenty Housman songs. One pleasing thing is that Williamson has ranged far more widely than A Shropshire Lad (1896) for his sources. In fact at least some of the poetry is much later than Housman’s most famous collection. Williamson has drawn on Housman’s Last Poems (1922) as well as two posthumously published collections that appeared in 1936.
In his original review Patrick Waller expressed the view that Williamson’s music has “ an overriding poignancy about much of it, whether the subject is soft and pastoral or overtly anguished.” I concur. I think On your midnight pallet lying is a fine song with a strong melodic line. Hughley steeple also impresses. It’s an atmospheric setting in which Williamson successfully marries the pastoral style with a more modernist vein. His setting of I lay me down and slumber has a gentle wistfulness. On the other hand Farewell to barn and stack … is much more impassioned – or, rather, it becomes so as the song progresses, with Williamson racking up the intensity with each stanza. The penultimate Housman setting, In valleys of springs of rivers has words that will be familiar to many collectors; Vaughan Williams set them as ‘Clun’ in On Wenlock Edge .
Mark Rowlinson sings well. The core of his voice is a warm, round baritone but he’s got a good top range too. Just once or twice I wondered if he was entirely comfortable with the higher tessitura of Williamson’s writing. David Jones supports him proficiently.
Patrick Waller drew attention to some distortion in the recording and this has been acknowledged in the booklet this time around. The distortion affects tracks 20 and 25. However, the problem appears but briefly and I didn’t find it a major issue. I was rather disappointed by the piano sound as recorded, however. To my ears the instrument sounded ‘washy’.
If I’m honest, I don’t think this CD uncovers a major English song writer. I respect the songs though I don’t really warm to them – but that’s a purely subjective view. However, Williamson’s songs are worth hearing and it’s good that they’ve been given this exposure through a recording.
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