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John R WILLIAMSON (b.1929)
Twelve Housman Songs

The Isle of Portland
As I gird on for fighting
Now hollow fires burn out to black
When I came last to Ludlow
Oh, stay at home my lad, and plough
Delight it is in youth and May
With rue my heart is laden
I wake from dreams and turning
The mill stream
When Adam walked in Eden young
It nods and curtseys
The farms of home

Nigel Shaw (bar)
John R Williamson (piano)
Recorded 5 Sept 1999
DUNELM RECORDS 0133.DR.1299 [19.23]

During the course of a recent Dunelm review I wondered aloud that we should have an album of John R Williamson’s settings of Housman. Little did I know that we already have two such discs, also issued by Dunelm who have shown a strong commitment to this composer’s work and one of which – to complete my ignorance – has already been reviewed on this site by Rob Barnett. Luckily I have made rapid amends and find myself impressed once more.

A number of the lyrics set here are Late Housman and Williamson responds with clarity but also a tensely argued sense of narrative. It’s notable how often a lyric is lit from within in these settings, how for example in The Isle of Portland Williamson colours the phrases stop under pressure and dream you light. Similarly he catches the military strut of As I gird on for fighting with his own brand of off-centre balladry fused with nervous dissonance. The subtle implication of March rhythm is something at which Williamson proves himself comprehensively successful (Now hollow fires burn out to black) and his complex response to the poems can best be exemplified by When I came last to Ludlow in which the piano postlude gives hypnotic space for retrospective reinterpretation of this quizzical setting; it seems to expand and deepen still further. He certainly embraces the pastoral as much as the rapid military, as indeed he does Housman’s mordancies and reveries. Even in such a well-known setting as With rue my heart is laden we find something new is being said – something elliptical, open-ended, strange. One finds with Williamson that both piano and vocal lines inhabit the veins of the lyric, the piano frequently setting up and evoking an initial anticipatory mood that grows more complex when the baritone enters – I think of the other-worldly delicacy of the opening piano paragraph in I wake from dreams and turning. He manages to vest these settings with immediacy and atmosphere from the start. Equally impressive are the vigorous and unremitting The mill stream and the bleak It nods and curtseys.

In view of the short playing time this disc retails at £6. There’s a boxy acoustic and some ancillary problems but you will listen through those to the performances. I shall soon be reviewing the companion disc of Williamson’s Housman songs released by Dunelm – contact them for all details. In the meantime I think you will find much that is complex, personal, reflective and – in the best sense – problematically human in these excellent settings.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Rob Barnett

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