> John R Williamson - Twelve Housman Songs [RB]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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John R WILLIAMSON (b.1940s)
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)
rec: 5 Sept 1999, DDD
DUNELM RECORDS 0133.DR.1299 [19.23]

Williamson is a living composer who appears, from the photograph on the back of the insert booklet, to be in his late fifties [see footnote]. Going by these highly skilled Housman settings Williamson is at ease in the central lyrical Housman tradition centred on Gurney, Ireland and Vaughan Williams. His settings are lent idiosyncratic savour by the peppery dissonances of the piano part.

The falsetto singing in When I came last to Ludlow recalls Vaughan Williams' phantasmal dialogue in his setting Is my team ploughing. One of the loveliest songs is With Rue My Heart is Laden and this is sung with special relish by Nigel Shaw. The way he sings of the 'light-foot boys' shows a glowing sympathy marrying word-shape and meaning. Dissonance plays like moonlight across the essentially ballad nature of I wake from dreams and The farms of home, the latter another 'land of lost content'. Clangour and turmoil of the piano part (approaching the desperation of the Prokofiev war-time piano sonatas) speaks of the malign aspect of The mill stream that on this basis has claimed lives. The tough setting of It nods and curtseys is played out in tones similar to those in Frank Bridge's Phantasm and Piano Sonata.

Williamson maps the winding path separating the rural idyll and death - the lyric and the dissonant. Williamson stands back from the direct but subtle lyric tradition within which Ian Venables and Margaret Wegener work. His is a world in which moderate dissonance is deployed to set up the constant Housman tension between delight and mortality, fleeting joys and morose reflection.

The sound is slightly boxy and the occasional chair creak is captured with just as much fidelity as it is for the piano and voice. There are some brief notes which could usefully have been expanded to give a date of birth for the composer and something more personal about why the composer felt drawn to make these settings. Are there others? After all Williamson must have felt a considerable compulsion to set these words especially when one recalls how frequently they have been set by others. No texts provided but if you have access to Housman's 'A Shropshire Lad', 'Late Poems' and 'Additional Poems' you will not be disadvantaged. Besides for the most part the words are quite distinct. A dated list of works would have been useful also. There is plenty of white space in this very nicely produced booklet. Another time perhaps?

This short-playing disc markets at about 5 UK pounds. Exact details from Dunelm.

Housman and British song enthusiasts should not delay.

Rob Barnett

Dunelm Records

Music for Piano Vol. 1: 12 New Piano preludes (1993); 12 Palindromic Preludes (1996); Sonatina No. 2 (1990) Murray Mclachlan (piano) DRD0134
Music for Piano Vol. 2: programme to be decided. Murray Mclachlan (piano) DRD0176
Organ Music by Manchester Composers: includes Williamson Organ Sonata. Ronald Frost (organ) DRD0178

Letter from the composer

Dear Rob

I felt that I just had to write and express my gratitude to you on the most eloquent and discerning review of my 12 Housman Songs Disc. You have indeed reflected a sincere insight into my particular and, if I may say so, my very personal compulsion towards Housman's unique poetical messages. You seem to be the first critic who has uncovered my personal obsession with Housman so accurately. Actually, when I came across Housman's poems in the 80s, I had no idea that he was already so prolifically set by a host of others. I was so drawn to the opposites of pastoral beauty and the irony of man's destruction, the obsession with death, it all seemed to reflect the tragedies of my own life. You certainly saw through me. I became immediately a member of the Housman Society. I have been performed by a few baritones, but several of high repute have not shown a preference for my work.

To fill in some your unknowns about me, I am in my early 70s and have set about 90 of Housman's poems, outstripping all other composers in this field, being about two thirds of his total output. I may say also, after some criticism of my songs by the renowned baritone Stephen Varcoe, that I have revised a great deal of the piano parts in the 12 songs on the disc, which I now consider to be inferior to my revisions. I intend to produce a 2nd. disc of Housman in the near future.

Thank you again for your astonishing perception of my work.

With kindest regards,

John R. Williamson, b. 1929


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