Roderick Williams’ Outstanding Artistry Compromised by an Inadequate Venue

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sisson, Rasch, Marshall, Holst, Hill, Bridge, Butler, Williams, Britten: Roderick Williams (baritone), Suzie Allen (piano), Three Choirs Festival, Blackfriars Priory, Gloucester. 30.7.2013 (JQ)

 

Roderick Williams, his accompanist, Suzie Allen, and some of the composers featured in his recital, outside Blackfriars Priory, Gloucester
Roderick Williams, his accompanist, Suzie Allen, and some of the composers featured in his recital, outside Blackfriars Priory, Gloucester

 

Richard Sisson (b. 1957) - So heavy hangs the sky (A E Housman)
Torsten Rasch (b. 1965) - Songs (Festival commission: world première)
The Songs I Had (Ivor Gurney)
Post-Script: for Gweno (Alun Lewis)
Old Martinmas Eve (Ivor Gurney)
Here dead we lie (A E Housman)
Nicholas Marshall (b. 1942) - The Garden of Love (William Blake)
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) - Journey’s End (Humbert Wolfe)
Jackson Hill (b. 1941) - The Silent Ground (Martha Hill)
Frank Bridge (1879-1941) - Journey’s End (Humbert Wolfe)
Martin Butler (b. 1960) - London (William Blake)
Roderick Williams (b. 1965) - The Angel (William Blake)
The Shepherd (William Blake)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - Songs and Proverbs of William Blake
(b. 1960) - London (William Blake)
Roderick Williams (b. 1965) - The Angel (William Blake)
The Shepherd (William Blake)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - Songs and Proverbs of William Blake

The distinguished baritone, Roderick Williams, is always a welcome guest at the Three Choirs Festival. For this recital he was joined by his regular pianist, the excellent Suzie Allen. The recital was given in the recently-renovated Blackfriars Priory. The main hall of this thirteenth century Dominican priory is a splendid structure which has recently been restored and refurbished and is now operated as a cultural centre by the City Council. In its new guise it is being used for the first time this year by the Three Choirs Festival and this was the first time I’d been in the building since its restoration. As will become clear the venue played a major part in this recital but, sadly, not for the right reasons.

Roderick Williams had chosen a challenging programme and one that was cleverly woven together. He included music by six living composers, including himself, and a seventh living composer provided the encore. With the exception of Martin Butler all these composers were present. The second half of the programme was devoted to settings of William Blake culminating in the major cycle by Britten, marking the composer’s centenary. The first half included the first performance of a set of songs by the German composer, Torsten Rasch, from whom a major choral work has been commissioned for the 2014 Three Choirs Festival; these songs, therefore, provided something of a taster.

The work, which will be unveiled at next year’s festival, will address the topic of war and its effects, a timely theme in the year that will mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. Anwen Walker’s programme note about the songs sung here by Roderick Williams, for whom they were written, told us that “the themes of light and the darkness of night exemplify the journey into war”. Therefore, as well as offering an introduction to Rasch’s music these songs would seem to act as a kind of ‘trailer’ for the forthcoming choral piece. I learned from the composer’s website that his early career was spent in Japan where he was a prolific composer of scores – over forty – for films and television. I also read of “his fluency, his assurance on the largest scale…..his uncanny ability to spin a vivid and personal sound-world. However, for much of the time the music featured a piano part in which the writing was often jagged and a vocal line which failed to exploit this particular singer’s rich lyric gifts: I longed for Williams to be given a memorable melody to sing. These songs did not make for easy listening – not that that, in itself, is necessarily a bad thing – but they didn’t fire my imagination or engage my sympathies despite the evident committed advocacy of the performers.

Earlier we had heard a set of seven Housman settings by Richard Sisson, who is best known, perhaps, as the piano-playing half of the celebrated cabaret act, Kit and the Widow. I understand that Sisson has composed widely for the theatre but his website lists compositions in a wide range of musical genres. The seven songs, which were performed without a break, encompass a wide range of moods. The first, ‘Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now’, is attractive and fluent with a big piano part. ‘Here dead we lie’, the third song, is darker than its predecessors, as befits the subject, but reaches a lovely, soft end. The final song, ‘They say my verse is sad: no wonder’ is notable for its sense of melancholy. This song has a fine, intense ending, which was delivered with wonderful technique and expression by Roderick Williams. That section is ushered in by an extended, delicate piano passage which was played quite beautifully by Suzie Allen. Sisson has written some demanding piano parts in these songs and Miss Allen played them superbly.

Nicholas Marshall’s The Garden of Love anticipated the all-Blake second half of the programme. His cycle consists of five Blake poems. I particularly liked the second setting, ‘Divine Image (I)’ with its light textures, the vocal line borne along on a rippling piano part, and the concluding ‘Cradle Song’ which was a gift to Williams’s command of line and legato and his vocal range. Unfortunately, during both of these songs workmen outside the hall chose, with grossly inappropriate timing, to empty into a skip what sounded like large rubbish bins filled with empty bottles!

Three single songs concluded the first half. The Holst song, a typically spare piece of music, contained many high notes, all of which were unerringly voiced by Williams. The song by the American composer, Jackson Hill to a poem by his wife, was a fine one; the music had a grave beauty and received, surely, an ideal performance. The Bridge offering is technically and emotionally challenging. Roderick Williams sang it with superb control and, as ever, Suzie Allen’s piano playing was sensitive.

We heard two songs by Roderick Williams himself. In a disarming programme note he revealed that these were written while he was still at school and were first sung for him at home by his father. They were unperformed until 2011 and this performance was the UK première. Williams may be right to identify an unconscious debt to Vaughan Williams and the music is much more conservative than other more recent pieces by him that I’ve heard. However, though he modestly described them as ‘juvenilia’ they did not deserve their long hibernation. Both are attractive songs and I particularly enjoyed the beautiful setting of The Shepherd.

Finally we heard Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, a cycle written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1965. Recently Williams has made an acclaimed recording of the work (review). Today he gave a powerful, authoritative performance. In particular I was much taken with the reading of ‘The Tyger’, where Williams and Allen conveyed marvellously the sense of suppressed energy being released gradually as the tiger’s movements gradually increase in energy. Also well done was ‘The Fly’, which both artists performed with delicacy and no little imagination. The final song in the set, ‘Every Night and Every Morn’ received a magnificent reading, full of intensity and marvellously controlled.

Even though the recital had run well past its scheduled finish time Williams gave us an encore, and I’m glad he did. When you are old, an unpublished Yeats setting by the Canadian composer and conductor, Stephanie Martin, was charming with a lovely, natural melodic grace. Like everything else on the programme it was superbly performed.

I’m reluctant to end a review on a sour note but comment has to be made about the venue. The Blackfriars Priory hall is a wonderful building. It’s long and airy with a high, wooden ceiling. As my colleague, Roger Jones, observed recently, it has excellent acoustics. Though my seat was near the back I could hear the performers very well. However, that’s where the plaudits stop. The first half of the recital was marred, certainly for those of us at the back, by continuous loud noises outside, where it seemed some construction work was going on. Fortunately that disturbance ceased during the second half but there were still unwelcome intrusions such as a car alarm going off during the Britten and noisy birds. Of course, these horrendous distractions were not the fault of the Festival authorities – who, nonetheless, issued an apology at the end of the interval – but, knowing that area of Gloucester as I do, it’s a busy part of town and likely to be prone to external noises, especially during the day time. I wonder if the city council took that into account when re-developing the hall. In addition, the interior is poorly designed for an audience. The performers were placed at one end of the hall on a slightly raised temporary platform. Those people seated immediately in front of the platform will have had a fine view. However the rest of the audience – about half – were seated on a permanent platform about two feet high. This is all on a level and most of the people here had no view of the artists at all. By the interval many in the audience were decidedly mutinous and I don’t blame them. Even with Listed Buildings constraints surely some tiered seating could have been installed at the rear of the hall. To pay over £20 for a ticket and then have no view and a performance disrupted by external noises is not on.

Unless significant improvements are made to this venue by the council I hope the Festival will not use it again. It is unacceptable that an inadequate venue should compromise artistry of the quality that was on offer at this recital from Roderick Williams and Suzie Allen.

Postscript

Since the above review was written the Festival organisers changed the seating arrangements in Blackfriars Priory for subsequent recitals, though I hasten to add that this decision was taken before my review had even appeared. The platform was placed along one wall – opposite the entrance – and the seats were arranged in a semi-circular fashion around the stage. I have not experienced the revised arrangements. However, a friend who accompanied me to the recital by Roderick Williams also attended what was, by all accounts, an outstanding recital on 2 August by tenor Robert Murray, deputising for the indisposed Andrew Kennedy. Her view was that the altered seating arrangements worked much better from the audience’s perspective. The Festival organisers should be congratulated on taking effective action to improve the seating arrangements in response to audience feedback.

John Quinn