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John Ramsden WILLIAMSON (b.1929)
Music for woodwind
Sonata for flute and piano for Miriam Hughes (2002) [13:33]
Sonata for clarinet and piano (2001) [26:38]
Sonata for bassoon (1993) [20:19]
Sonatina for flute and piano (1986 rev. 2004) [8:16]
Suite for clarinet and piano (1991) [12:05]
Sonatina for bassoon and piano (2005) [11:32]
Miriam Hughes (flute)
Sarah Ableman (clarinet)
Rosemary Richardson (bassoon)
David Jones (piano)
rec. location and dates not given
DUNELM DRD0271 [60:32 + 31:55]

Dunelm Records now has no fewer than nine CD releases which include work by the Manchester-born composer John Williamson. This includes a continuing series of his substantial output for piano solo. His work for winds and piano is representative of a style which is solidly in a tonal tradition which respects the nature of each instrument, balances soloist and accompaniment in a dialogue of equals, and is potentially enjoyable and rewarding for performer and listener alike.
Played by its dedicatee, the Sonata for flute and piano makes for a confident start, with some dramatic gestures and an elegant turn of phrase. Williamson’s sonatas do not always fall within the traditional three movement fast-slow-fast pattern, but this does, with a central Recitative in which the instruments ask more wistful questions, concluding with a final effervescent fast movement. The material of each movement is related in tonal flavour, with added notes providing some acidity to the chords in the piano.
Williamson’s way of combining his chordal structures with his melodic motifs continues in the Sonata for clarinet and piano. This technique does provide considerable unity between the two instruments, but makes one wonder if we will ever get a tune made up of anything other than notes from within the chords used. The first movement is a case in point, in which the passagework from the clarinet does little more than comment on the quasi-pentatonic tonalities in the piano. The four movements of this piece include a set of variations which I hoped would introduce a wider range of expression, but aside from a mixture of tempos and differing characters, the various sections really only offer more of the same.
The first disc of this set concludes with the Sonata for bassoon and piano, which is a slightly earlier work from 1993. There are few features of the work which distinguish it from the previous ones. I had some hopes of the second movement, the Song of Sorrow, but aside from some doloroso meandering, the melodic shapes have little emotional impact. There are some intonation issues which don’t help with the admittedly difficult to combine antique quality of the bassoon and needle-sharp tones of a modern piano, but the consistency of Williamson’s unifying techniques were starting to drive me up the wall by this stage in any case.
I know I will be moaned at for being critical of an elder statesman of British music, and I am sure that, performed in isolation in a programme of pieces by other composers these sonatas would work perfectly well, but having three piled one on top of each other is a bit much for my digestion. For me the problem is one of too much unity. The melodic instruments are never really allowed to break free from the yoke of material developed in the piano part, so while the piano is rarely heard in a subservient role, the melodic solo never really ‘flies’. Similar issues arise with the Sonatinas and Suite on the second disc, although the brevity of most of the movements lightens the load somewhat. Take almost any of the recognised 20th century solo + piano sonatas, and listen to how the big tunes are allowed to grow through the independent character of the parts. Exceptions to this rule of thumb, such as the canonic writing in CÚsar Franck’s Sonata for violin and piano, succeed through the strength of their ideas and some seriously contrasting textures and relationships both tonally and in terms of density. In the works on these CDs I found myself yearning for a ‘big tune’ of any kind, despite the undoubted inventiveness and communicative melodic facility throughout. When looked at even just a little more closely than just casual listening, the melodies in these works are too motivic and fragmentary – their often sequential nature also giving rise to a certain amount of irritability for this listener: they have difficulty breathing, their heads always seeming to bob along just below the surface of the piano’s waterways in terms of the material they receive.
The performances on these recordings are generally very good, and David Jones does sterling work as the ever-present pianist. Rosemary Richardson’s bassoon has a noisy mechanism, but this is the way of their kind. The recordings are vivid and clear, though I would have appreciated some wider stereo separation at times – the clarinet sessions border on enhanced mono over headphones, and though this is less of a problem through loudspeakers there’s still precious little difference between left and right.
While it’s probably too late to hope that my comments on the music come over as too negative, I feel I must add that I don’t actively dislike this music. What’s to dislike? As I say at the beginning, these works are well written for their instruments, are all eminently approachable, and taken in isolation are worth exploring by players and listeners alike. Picking the recordings up again after being left to simmer for a few days, and my frustrations remain however. Maybe I’m just a curmudgeonly old Scrooge who needs locking away, and maybe getting another composer to comment on this set of works wasn’t such a good idea. Whatever the case, the Dunelm Records website will have sound samples, so you can decide for yourself if these good natured pieces are up your street.
Dominy Clements


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