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.
OTHER RECORDINGS OF MUSIC BY JOHN R WILLIAMSON
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)
Organ Music by Manchester Composers: includes Williamson Organ Sonata.
Ronald Frost (organ) DRD0178
Letter from the composer
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
Thank you again for your astonishing perception of my
With kindest regards,
John R. Williamson, b. 1929