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John R WILLIAMSON (b.1940s)
Music for Piano - volume 2
Song of Nature (1993) [4.20]
Twelve Palindromic Studies - set 5 (2000) [26.46]
Piano Sonata No. 4 - The Palindromic (1998) [20.49]
Seven Interval Studies (2001) [18.21]
Lament for Sarah (1998) [2.41]
Murray McLachlan (except last item which is played by composer)
rec. 17 Dec 2002, 19 Jan 2003, Whiteley Hall, Chetham's School of Music, Manchester. DDD
DUNELM DRD0176 [74.06]


For biographical background on the English composer John Williamson please refer to earlier reviews on this site.

The Song of Nature is from An English Suite reflecting the elation experienced while cycling through a country landscape. This particular piece is somewhere between Debussy and late Frank Bridge.

These coordinates also encompass the Fifth Set of Palindromic Preludes and the Seven Interval Studies. Not only is the idiom surprisingly uniform across these pieces but Williamson's delight in the palindrome avoids the stultification that such contrived structures can engender. The Sixth Prelude is in much the same mood as the Song of Nature. The explosive Eighth may well remind you of the sonorously echoing bell towers of Bax's First Piano Sonata while Prelude 11 recalls the Rachmaninov Etudes-Tableaux. The Seven Studies were premiered by Murray McLachlan at Chethams on 31 August 2002. The music reminds me of Howellsí for solo piano in its reach towards an almost Oriental world as in No. 3. The Fourth and Sixth are also potently lyrical in Williamson's now accustomed pastoral vein. These pieces are well worth sharing if you have already come to terms with John Foulds' superb Essays in the Modes. The set ends with the virtuosic headlong hurtle of 'Fast-Dramaticí.

The Piano Sonata No. 4 The Palindromic is not a strict palindrome but we are told that its melodic and harmonic structures follow that pattern. Such technical niceties are almost an irrelevance to the general listener who will find this work to be in an approachable idiom related to Prokofiev and also to the more imperious and darker John Ireland (as in the Ballade and Sonatina). After a lullaby-slow Pastorale comes an alla scherzo of sweepingly chilly arpeggiation and a caustic, angular and grim finale. One gets a strong sense of cohesion and structure from this music.

The disc ends with the brief but telling Lament for Sarah played by the composer. The other tracks are spell-bindingly played by Murray McLachlan.

Congratulations to Dunelm on an attractive yet functional design for the cover of the CD booklet. The liner notes are by the composer.

Rob Barnett

Hubert Culot has also listened to this disc

Throughout his composing career, John R. Williamson has patiently and painstakingly developed his own formal thinking, mostly based on palindromic structures. Many of his pieces clearly reflect this life-long concern. He has composed six sets of Twelve Palindromic Preludes as well as a number of works, such as the Second and Fourth Piano Sonatas, that also often rely on palindromic structures, harmonic, rhythmic and melodic as well. I once read a remark that any fool can write a palindrome. It nevertheless it is much more difficult to compose a palindrome that also makes sense, musically speaking. Williamson is clearly such a composer, for his beautifully crafted, wholly idiomatic pieces may be fully enjoyed as pure, abstract music of great expressive appeal. DUNELM RECORDSí previous release devoted to Williamsonís piano music (DRD 0134) already demonstrated the composerís full mastery of his aims and means. The present release, actually Volume 2, confirms the impressions gathered from the preceding disc.

The Fourth Piano Sonata is a substantial work in four movements, including a beautifully expressive slow movement framed by lively, rhythmically alert outer movements. The fifth set of Twelve Palindromic Preludes completed in 2000 consists of neatly characterised movements, in turn energetic and contemplative, serious and playful, in which Williamsonís masterly is evident throughout. One completely forgets his formal concern with palindromic structures and one simply enjoys some beautiful piano music. This, I think, bears ample proof of the measure of assurance and command achieved by the composer in his handling of the material. Seven Interval Preludes, dating from 2001 and first performed by Murray McLachlan in August 2002, have of course much in common with the earlier works represented here. The studies are again very contrasted in mood, and the whole set ends with a brilliant Toccata.

This magnificent release opens and ends with two short pieces. Song of Nature, an atmospheric Pastorale, is actually the fourth section of An English Suite whereas the last item, played by the composer, Lament for Sarah is an excerpt from a set of variations for harp. This short, but deeply-moving miniature "reflects the sadness following the death of a granddaughter in 1998".

Those who have heard the first volume previously released by DUNELM will know what to expect. To those new to Williamsonís music I will only say this: If you respond to piano music by, say, Debussy, Ravel or John Ireland, you cannot but respond to Williamsonís idiomatic, often impressionistic, expressive music. Murray McLachlan plays beautifully throughout and is obviously much in empathy with the music. His magnificent readings, carefully prepared and tonally varied, serve the music in the best possible way. I simply hope that DUNELM will go on recording Williamsonís music and that further instalments will soon be available. Warmly recommended.

Hubert Culot

See also review by Ian Milnes


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



Twelve Housman Songs (Nigel Shaw/composer) DUNELM DRD0133

Music for Piano - Volume 1 (Murray McLachlan) DUNELM DRD0134

Music for Organ - includes Williamson's Organ Sonata DUNELM DRD0178


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