John R. Williamson hails from Manchester and spent most of his professional life teaching; composing in his spare time. 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).
Most of the songs on this new disc are also settings of A.E. Housman (A Shropshire Lad, Last Poems or Poems published posthumously); the exceptions are She walks in beauty and When we two parted (Byron), Before the battle and I stood with the dead (S. Sassoon) and She is not fair (S.T. Coleridge). The programme is not a cycle but is well-constructed, containing songs which were written over a long period of time, the first three dating from the 1950s. Two decades later Williamson discovered Housman, with whose work he clearly has a special affinity.
This music covers a wide range of emotions and makes a powerful impression. There is an overriding poignancy about much of it, whether the subject is soft and pastoral or overtly anguished.
Mark Rowlinson copes with both the technical demands and range of these songs. His voice is equally comfortable at both ends of the dynamic range, for example in the hushed tones of In valleys of springs of rivers and in the almost agonising I stood with the dead . David Jones accompanies most sympathetically.
The disc is very well-presented apart from some rather small print on the back liner. The recording is closely balanced and struggles to cope with Mark Rowlinson’s powerful voice at the climaxes. Indeed I noticed some audible distortion in a few places, most noticeably on the very moving final track. I therefore contacted Jim Pattison of Dunelm Records who advised that this might be related to the NAIM equipment I was using, the disc being a CD-R. Playing it in several other players seemed to confirm this view and, surprisingly, it sounded best in my old Sony Walkman. The message seems clear – if you experience such a problem try it in another player. Certainly, the quality of the music and performances will reward such persistence.
Williamson’s love of Housman and eloquent music continue to impress and he is surely now amongst the most important living British songwriters.
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