This recording was originally issued on the Dunelm label (DRD0265)
in 2007, when it was reviewed
by my colleague Patrick Waller.
John R. Williamson was born in Manchester and spent most of
his professional life teaching in the North West of England.
Patrick drew attention to other recordings of his music and,
for ease of reference it may be helpful to readers if I reproduce
the information he provided. “In the last few years his works
have begun to appear on Dunelm. Of particular note are Volume
2 of a series of piano music played by Murray MacLachlan
and his second
cello sonata. In terms of songs, two groups of twelve Housman
settings were reviewed enthusiastically by Rob
Barnett in 2002 and Jonathan
Woolf in 2004. These are now available together on a single
disc which I can recommend highly (DRD0257).”
Williamson has a particular affinity with the poetry of A.E.
Housman. Indeed, he tells us in the booklet that it was his
discovery of Housman’s poetry in the 1970s that moved him to
resume song-writing, a form he’d left alone since the 1950s.
He has now completed some 120 Housman settings and all but the
first three and last two tracks on this present CD set words
The first three in Mark Rowlinson’s programme are early songs,
dating from the 1950s. The first and third are to poems by Byron
in between which comes a setting by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
These may not be the deepest compositions on the disc but I
found them the most attractive. All three have a graceful, flowing
melodic line and the music has an appealing air of gentle melancholy.
Right at the end of the programme come two settings of poems
by Siegfried Sassoon. It’s not clear when these were composed
but since they won an award for the composer in 2004 it seems
reasonable to assume that they may date from around the start
of the final decade of the last century. I stood with the
dead is a particularly imposing song; its music is impassioned.
In between we hear twenty Housman songs. One pleasing thing
is that Williamson has ranged far more widely than A Shropshire
Lad (1896) for his sources. In fact at least some of the
poetry is much later than Housman’s most famous collection.
Williamson has drawn on Housman’s Last Poems (1922) as
well as two posthumously published collections that appeared
In his original review Patrick Waller expressed the view that
Williamson’s music has “ an overriding poignancy about much
of it, whether the subject is soft and pastoral or overtly anguished.”
I concur. I think On your midnight pallet lying is a
fine song with a strong melodic line. Hughley steeple
also impresses. It’s an atmospheric setting in which Williamson
successfully marries the pastoral style with a more modernist
vein. His setting of I lay me down and slumber has a
gentle wistfulness. On the other hand Farewell to barn and
stack … is much more impassioned – or, rather, it becomes
so as the song progresses, with Williamson racking up the intensity
with each stanza. The penultimate Housman setting, In valleys
of springs of rivers has words that will be familiar to
many collectors; Vaughan Williams set them as ‘Clun’ in On
Mark Rowlinson sings well. The core of his voice is a warm,
round baritone but he’s got a good top range too. Just once
or twice I wondered if he was entirely comfortable with the
higher tessitura of Williamson’s writing. David Jones supports
Patrick Waller drew attention to some distortion in the recording
and this has been acknowledged in the booklet this time around.
The distortion affects tracks 20 and 25. However, the problem
appears but briefly and I didn’t find it a major issue. I was
rather disappointed by the piano sound as recorded, however.
To my ears the instrument sounded ‘washy’.
If I’m honest, I don’t think this CD uncovers a major English
song writer. I respect the songs though I don’t really warm
to them – but that’s a purely subjective view. However, Williamson’s
songs are worth hearing and it’s good that they’ve been given
this exposure through a recording.
She walks in beauty [3:21]
She is not fair [1:58]
When we two parted [4:00]
The lads in their hundreds [2:37]
’tis five years since [2:30]
Oh, it is the jar of nations [1:31
On your midnight pallet lying [2:21]
Hughley steeple [4:12]
I lay me down and slumber [2:00]
Sinner’s rue [3:40]
Parta Quies [1:22]
He looked at me with eyes … [2:07]
Others, I am not the first [3:01]
Farewell to barn and stack … [2:25]
When the lad for longing sighs [2:02]
I hoed and trenched and … [2:26]
Oh were he and I together [1:42]
The new mistress [1:53]
Oh, see how thick the gold… [3:06]
Easter hymn [3:18]
In valleys of springs of rivers [4:41]
Before the battle [2:31
I stood with the dead [3:43]