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Dunelm Records

John R WILLIAMSON (b.1929)
Twelve More Housman Songs

The ploughman
Keeping sheep by moonlight
The recruit
White in the moon the long road lies
Soldier from the wars returning
When first my way to fair I took
Is my team ploughing?
When I watch the living meet
Young is the blood that yonder
In valleys green and still
Look not in my eyes, for fear
The carpenter’s son
Nigel Shaw (baritone)
John R Williamson (piano)
No recording details


I reviewed the first volume in Dunelm’s series devoted to John R Williamson’s Housman settings quite recently. I’d been impressed by a couple of such settings presented in The Wagon of Life anthology issued by the same company. Greater experience has served only to support my initial enthusiasm. Williamson’s broadly traditional palette is enriched by mild dissonances and his perception of these lyrics’ complexity fully communicates itself to the listener.

Take, for example, Look not in my eyes, for fear. The almost Ravelian opening piano statement is rich with allusive expressivity and it becomes progressively bejewelled with delicacy – limpid but also, never far away, strangely disquieting. The ploughman also exhibits another characteristic Williamson strength; the immediate establishment of mood and atmosphere. The rocking rhythm set up by the piano anticipates the baritone’s "trampling" and succeeds in seemingly inhabiting the setting from within. Similarly Keeping sheep by moonlight – a vernacular phrase for a hanging – begins with ominous and increasingly desolate piano writing; Williamson introduces bells tolls with considerable subtlety and ends the setting as it began, an arch of ever deepening realisation at the end of which we survey the emotions stirred, the life cruelly ended. "The journey to take" in White in the moon the long road lies is conveyed through ascending and descending piano lines; chordal progressions are pregnant with meaning. If I concentrate in these examples on Williamson’s piano writing it’s not because the lyric line is any way less effective; rather that the accompanying prefigures, sets up, sustains, fractures and comments upon the lyric in ways that are stimulating and complicated – without being obscure for obscurity’s sake.

When Williamson takes on even so well known a lyric as Is my team ploughing? He does so on his own terms; the only vague reminiscence to Vaughan Williams comes in the lightening of the voice at certain points in the last verse. Otherwise what emerges from this performance is not a dialogue as such – or if it is not one overemphasised by the voices of the quick and the dead – but almost an internalised questioning of the soul. The postlude is particularly moving.

Only very small passing complaints; why does Nigel Shaw sing "awree" for "awry" in Young is the blood that yonder – it makes no sense of the ABCBB rhyme scheme. Part of the text of Keeping sheep by moonlight has been lost in the booklet. The recorded sound is serviceable. Otherwise here is a composer (and a convincing interpreter of his own music, as is Shaw, whose musicality makes up for any minor problems) who has inhabited these poems with personal and lasting illumination.

Jonathan Woolf


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