The twenty-five songs on this well recorded disc fall into three groups: the first three, settings of the Romantic poets Byron and Coleridge, are early, perhaps now untypical, essays in a late Romantic idiom and are the least memorable; the last two set savage, sardonic lyrics by Sassoon in a way which reminds us the Great War has power to inspire fine art nearly a century on; and the remaining twenty are settings of A E Housman. Housman, it is said, disliked musical settings of his poetry, yet, ironically, his verse has been responsible for some of the most striking English songs of the last hundred years. Admittedly – and this may be a handicap and, at the same time an inspiration for Williamson – the average music lover, given the name Housman, thinks George Butterworth, Vaughan Williams, Gurney, Moeran, Ireland and maybe one or two others.
Williamson’s twenty settings here recorded represent about a sixth of his total Housman output. Some of them have romantic interest, stretching out to – but more usually contrasting with – the Byron and Coleridge, while others underline, as did Sassoon and others, the futility of war. One of the latter is The lads in their hundreds one of the comparatively few Housman poems that are well known in settings by earlier composers; Williamson finds an entirely different but equally memorable and convincing musical twist to the familiar words. He has his own style, naturally, and at times his settings, perhaps equally naturally, have a certain similarity, for example The new mistress and O see how thick the gold cup , actually placed side by side on the CD. That said, there is plenty of variety here. Some of my own favourites are the longer songs – the stark Hughley steeple and the enigmatic In valleys of springs of rivers , say – but there is much to enjoy generally, even the savage tragedy of Farewell to barn and I would be glad to hear in the future some of Williamson’s hundred or so Housman settings which are still unknown to me.
The twenty songs here find a first-rate advocate in the experienced Mark Rowlinson whose delivery is clear and his diction outstanding. Equally importantly he is positively supported by pianist David Jones, as much of the musical argument of these songs lies in the often chordal accompaniment, whose piano writing is so characteristic of this composer. For this reason, balance must have been a recurring headache for both performers and recordist, but by and large they get this just about right. The booklet, which has a striking cover design, prints all the words and contains a brief (some may feel, rather too brief) note by the composer.
Strongly recommended to lovers of English song and of Housman settings in particular.