United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (1) Roderick Williams (baritone), Susie Allen (piano), Holy Trinity Church, Hereford, 25.7.2015 (JQ)
Song of the Hero
Vaughan Williams – Four Last Songs
Tim Torry (b. 1947) – The Face of Grief (2003)
Rhian Samuel (b. 1944) – A Swift Radiant Morning (Festival commission: world première)
Howells – There was a maiden (1915)
St Bride’s Song (1913)
O my deir hert (1920)
Girl’s Song (1916)
Elgar – Sea Pictures
The British weather is nothing if not variable. Almost a year ago to the day Roderick Williams gave a song recital on the opening day of the 2014 Three Choirs Festival in Worcester (review). Those of us who had the good fortune to be present heard an outstanding recital but, my goodness, it was something of an endurance test for both audience and performers as a heat wave meant that we heard Williams in sauna-like temperatures. Thankfully, his recital for this year’s Hereford festival was given in much more temperate conditions in a venue new to me, Holy Trinity Church. This is a spacious church which I would judge was built around the turn of the twentieth century. I’m not sure if Three Choirs have used it before but it seems to have pleasing acoustics.
The 2014 Festival programme marked the centenary of the outbreak of World War I in many ways and Roderick Williams’ recital then emphasised that theme very strongly. This year the Festival programme continues to observe the Great War’s centenary, though not quite so prominently, and this recital contributed to that theme. It was complementary to last year’s recital. As Williams explained, the programme was built around idea of partners – so, essentially feminine – waiting at home for the return of soldiers/ heroes. However, as the programme evolved he became increasingly to feel that its theme should not necessarily be gender-specific. Intriguingly, the two sets of recent songs featured a male composer setting words by a female poet and then Rhian Samuel setting words by a male poet.
The Four Last Songs by Vaughan Williams are settings of poems which his wife, Ursula, wrote in the last years of RVW’s life with the specific intention that he should set them to music. Composed in the two or three years before his death the songs were first performed in 1959. As Gwilym Bowen’s excellent programme note pointed out, the texts are imbued with Classical mythology. Unsurprisingly there’s a valedictory or elegiac feel to them which Roderick Williams conveyed very well. The clear diction and seemingly effortless legato that regularly mark out his singing meant that he was ideally suited to these songs. The final song, ‘Menelaus’ is the most extensive – and made the strongest impression of all on me. Here the piano part in particular seems to hark back to the Vaughan Williams of maybe 40 years before. I don’t believe these songs are very well known but on the evidence of this sensitive performance they deserve to be.
Tim Torry is a singer (a baritone) as well as a composer, though his career has been hampered by illness, now happily overcome. His cycle, The Face of Grief comprises settings of three poignant poems by Charlotte Mew (1869-1928). As Roderick Williams said in introducing them, the settings are essentially contemplative. The music of the first, ‘June 1915’ is very spare and here and in the second song I was struck by how often the singer falls silent, leaving the pianist to convey the atmosphere, a task that Susie Allen accomplished expertly. The third song, ‘May 1915’ contains the most intense music. I think I need greater familiarity with both the poems, which were new to me, and the music before passing judgement though it seemed to me, at a first hearing, that the settings rather lacked a sufficiently wide emotional compass. In retrospect I felt the songs by Rhian Samuel were more ambitious and offered more. However, Williams and Allen gave Torry’s songs the best possible advocacy.
I read in her biography that much of Welsh composer Rhian Samuel’s vocal music “is concerned with ‘women speaking for themselves’.” However, in A Swift Radiant Morning she had been asked to set words by a male poet, Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895-1915), who fell at the Battle of Loos in October 1915. Again, these were texts previously unknown to me. These songs made for demanding listening but rewarded close attention. The second song, ‘The Sounds of War’ sets words from a letter home that Sorley wrote from the trenches. The often ironic words were as evocative of the nightmare of the Front as anything you’ll read in Wilfred Owen. In the closing lines, with a reference to “underground is labour”, I wonder if Sorley was describing the work of the sappers. Samuel set the text in an intensely dramatic fashion and her music was graphically performed by Williams and Allen – here and elsewhere the piano part is hugely demanding. The third song, ‘The Signpost’ is at times more lyrical but the lyricism is decidedly uneasy. The fourth song, ‘In Memoriam S.C.W.’ is an eloquent elegy for a fallen comrade. One of the lines of this poem provides the title for the cycle. The concluding song, ‘Earth’s King’ is the longest and, I think, the most ambitious setting in terms of its reach; I had the feeling that it was to this that the cycle had been building. The music seemed to me, at a first hearing, to be a gripping and moving response to the words.
A Swift Radiant Morning is a challenging set of songs both for the listener and for the performers. The piano part is very taxing, as is the vocal line. The vocal part contains several passages that extend into the uppermost register of the baritone voice and I suspected the music had been composed with Roderick Williams’ voice – and especially his enviable production at the top of his range – in mind. Afterwards the composer confirmed my suspicions. It will be interesting to see which other singers take up this work but it was auspiciously launched here by Roderick Williams and Susie Allen.
The original programme order was modified. The Howells group had been planned as the last item before the interval but Williams told us that he had reconsidered, having come to the view that the Howells songs would be a better preface to the Elgar. I’m sure he was right. These are all fairly early compositions and they all displayed a flowing, easy lyricism; at this stage in his career the highly personal chromatic harmonic language so familiar in much of Howells’ choral music lay in the future. The majestic climax at the end of ‘St Bride’s Song’ was excitingly delivered while the fluent setting of ‘O my deir hert’, the text also known as ‘Balulalow’, was ideally tailored to Williams’ voice.
Roderick Williams is the only male singer who I have heard singing Sea Pictures. He made a very fine recording of the cycle with orchestra – the first by a baritone – in 2009 (Dutton Epoch CDLX 7243). Though Elgar wrote the songs for contralto voice once I’d heard Williams’ recording I saw no reason why a male singer should not perform them. The texts are certainly not gender-specific and a baritone can sing them in the original keys. True, the tessitura can be stretching occasionally but this poses no obvious difficulty to Williams on his CD, nor did it here. So far as I can tell the only “concession” he makes is a slight modification to the vocal line right at the end of the cycle. It’s more usual to hear the songs with orchestral accompaniment rather than piano and it’s true that one misses the orchestral colours but when you have a pianist of Susie Allen’s accomplishment and perception you swiftly forget the “loss” of an orchestra and appreciate the clarity and intimacy that a performance with piano can impart.
This was, quite simply, a marvellous performance of the songs. Here, as throughout the recital, not only was Roderick Williams’ diction exemplary but also his care for the meaning of the words was readily apparent. Both he and Susie Allen achieved a sense of rapt calm in ‘Sea Slumber-Song’. In ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ Williams’ vocal control was marvellous and his delivery of the closing stanza (from “He shall assist me to look higher”) was elevated. This is the finest song of the five and Williams made it so. Both performers brought great artistry to the delicate setting ‘Where Corals Lie’. Finally we had a surging yet highly contrasted and refined account of ‘The Swimmer’ in which the sometimes high-lying tessitura was negotiated effortlessly. Roderick Williams made very strong case for these songs to be sung by a male singer and I hope others will follow the trail he has blazed. (I note that the Australian baritone, Michael Lampard is to include them in an afternoon recital in Worcester on 23 August.)
We had one encore. By a happy chance today was the 60th birthday of the Worcester-based composer, Ian Venables, whose fine songs Roderick Williams has championed in recent years. As a birthday greeting Williams sang ‘The Hippo’, a gently humorous setting of words by Theodore Roethke which Williams has included on a brand new and excellent disc of Venables songs (Signum Classics SIGCD424). His deliberately lazy rendition of this little song was simply delicious and a perfect end to a fine and typically imaginative recital.
The recital was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast on Tuesday 28 July at 13.00.
Full details of the 2015 Three Choirs Festival are at www.3choirs.org