Roderick Williams: Masterly in English Song

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 4: Roderick Williams (baritone), Susie Allan (piano), Shirehall, Hereford, 26.7.2012 (JQ)

Vaughan Williams:  Three Poems by Walt Whitman (1925)
John Ireland:  Songs of a Wayfarer (c1903/5)
Martin Shaw:  Venizel (1914)
Child of the flowing tide (1919)
Wood magic (1924)
Brookland Road (1919)
Old clothes and fine clothes (1922)
Vaughan Williams:  Songs of Travel (1904)

Roderick Williams excels in opera and on the concert platform. However, it often seems to me that he does his finest work of all as a recitalist and, within that genre, he has special gifts as an interpreter of English song. He’s a popular figure at the Three Choirs Festival so it was no surprise that his appearance here was quickly sold out – the proverbial “hot ticket”.

What I like especially when I see and hear Williams in recital is how well he communicates with his audience. Yet he does this in a very restrained and wholly natural manner; no showboating for him. For example, one thing that struck me today was that he sang almost the entire recital with his arms by his side, eschewing any gesticulation, however modest. That may sound a trivial thing but it’s not easy to do – most of us find it very difficult not to do something with our hands, especially when we’re in front of other people. Yet this restraint is all of a piece with Roderick Williams’ approach to songs: he knows they’re best put across if he lets the poems and the music speak for themselves and enlivens them ‘simply’ through fine vocal technique, including an excellent range of tone and colour. That confidence in the songs stems, I’m sure, from a thorough study of the words that each composer has set and a well-considered understanding of them.

He set his stall out from the very start with an impressive account of RVW’s Three Poems by Walt Whitman. In the first of these, ‘Nocturne’, he deployed an effortless, seamless legato and the voice was produced with a wonderful evenness throughout its compass, the high notes especially enviable in the way they were delivered. These qualities, together with crystal clear diction were to be hallmarks of the entire recital.

It’s exactly fifty years since John Ireland died; a good reason to include some of his songs. Introducing this group of early songs Williams said he wondered why Ireland had given them the collective title, Songs of a Wayfarer. He suspected that Ireland was thinking metaphorically of travel and drew attention also to the sense of memory that often prevails in the texts, which are by divers poets. The first, ‘Memory’ (William Blake) is an attractive song and Williams brought out its lyrical vein really well. He was equally at home with the extrovert, good humoured ‘When daffodils begin to peer’ (Shakespeare). ‘English May’ (Dante Gabriel Rossetti) is a more reflective setting and I appreciated the fine feeling with which Williams delivered it. ‘I was not sorrowful’ (Dowson) is the expressive heart of the set and Williams’ wonderful, warm-toned singing really did justice to it. ‘I will walk on the earth’ (James Vila Blake) brings the group to an optimistic conclusion and a splendid reading of it culminated in a superb sustained high note from Williams, seemingly produced with no effort at all. It’s not always that you can use the expression “it ended on a high note” with complete accuracy in every sense but this was one such occasion.

Roderick Williams told us that he considered himself “extraordinarily lucky” that he was invited recently to take part in a recording of a collection of songs by Martin Shaw (1875-1958). Only a few days before I’d completed a review of that disc (Delphian DCD34105) for MusicWeb International and I’d enjoyed it greatly so I was delighted to find five of the songs from that CD included on today’s programme. In fact, Williams told us that he’d not performed the songs in public prior to this week. Well, I hope he’ll continue to include them in his recital programmes for they’re excellent songs and they suit his voice really well. It was also a neat piece of programme planning since both Ireland and Vaughan Williams were friends of Shaw from their student days.

Venizel is a poignant song. The poem was written by one Captain W. A. Short (d. 1917). Short’s poem was written while he was on active service in the early days of the war – it was published in The Times in November 1914 – and the final stanza reflects the patriotic optimism of those early days on the conflict. The preceding three verses, however, are more bittersweet in tone, as is the music. It seems to me to be a quintessential early twentieth-century English song and Roderick Williams sang it beautifully. Shaw composed the song in 1914 and, for me, the poignancy lies in the fact that at that time neither poet nor composer had any idea what horrors lay ahead in France. There was an unexpected moment of coincidence at the end of the third stanza where the poet talks of dead men lying “Beside the bridge for which they fell”. At that very moment an ambulance went by outside, its siren going. Wood magic is a strange, eerie song to words by John Buchan. A simple countryman is frightened when he comes across evidence of pagan rituals. He takes comfort in Christianity but then at the end of the song shrewdly hedges his bets between the two. Williams and his marvellous pianist, Susie Allan, created a vivid atmosphere in this song. In complete contrast Old clothes and fine clothes is one of those humorous fun songs that Williams does so well and he tossed it off in a delightful performance. I’d admired and enjoyed these songs on CD but hearing them done live – and so well – really brought them to life and added greatly to my appreciation of them.

After the interval we were treated to Songs of Travel and I use the word “treated” advisedly because this was a consummate performance. Roderick Williams has made a splendid recording of this cycle (review) but, once again, live performance adds an extra dimension. In ‘The Vagabond’ Williams managed to inject excellent rhythmic spring into the music yet never at the cost of breaking the vocal line. He invested the song with a young man’s energy but there was ample sensitivity also. ‘Let Beauty awake’ benefitted from an enviable legato; the Romantic nature of both poem and music was really brought to life. ‘Youth and Love’ was just wonderful: Williams displayed marvellous control, especially in his higher register. In ‘Wither must I wander’ both singer and pianist made the most of the contrasts in the music. ‘Bright is the ring of words’ offered another example of exemplary vocal control. After a commanding opening Williams allowed the song to subside gently as RVW intended so that the second stanza was delivered with great tenderness. This was quite simply a splendid performance of Songs of Travel.

An encore was inevitable; what would it be? It couldn’t have been a more welcome choice: Gurney’s exquisitely wistful Down by the Salley Gardens, one of my very favourite English songs. The relaxed yet intense performance by these two fine artists was sheer perfection.

This was a masterly recital, showing Roderick Williams yet again at his splendid best. I’m conscious that, as so often in a review of a recital, insufficient mention has been made of the pianist. That’s grossly unfair so let me make amends right now. Suzie Allan’s pianism was an integral part of the success of this recital. Her touch was superb throughout and she showed consistent empathy with both her recital partner and with the music.

This was a recital that those lucky enough to have enjoyed will not forget in a hurry.

John Quinn