United Kingdom Schubert: Roderick Williams (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano), Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire. 12.1.2016. (GR)
Last month, Performance Platform, the admirable series of Tuesday midday concerts that predominantly feature some of Birmingham Conservatoire’s most talented postgraduate performers, guested Tasmin Little (violin) and Piers Lane (review); the recital on Jan 15th 2016 was equally outstanding, welcoming a baritone who has become one of the UK’s most exceptional vocalists, Roderick Williams. He has come a long way since his 1987 appearance on the talent show Opportunity Knocks! His accompanist was also one of the best, the redoubtable former Radio 3 presenter, Iain Burnside.
Although simply billed originally as excerpts from Schwanengesang, Op. 957 (Schubert’s ‘Swan Song’ of fourteen lieder) Williams had given some thought to the selection he had chosen for this visit to Adrian Boult Hall. Deviating slightly from the advertised script, his two groups of songs were now entitled A Taste of Rellstab and Heine Expanded. The Ludwig Rellstab poetry that comprises Numbers 1, 2 and 4 of Schwanengesang opened the programme and the flavours Williams served up were delectable: while Burnside’s still agile fingers rippled the brook along, Williams’ message of love in Liebesbotschaft was equally eager and his ‘Flüstre ihr Träume’ (Whisper dreams to her) quite beautiful; the dark mood of the battle ahead was delicately balanced with anxious thoughts of sweethearts back home in Kriegers Ahnung (Soldier’s Farewell); the familiar Ständchen (Serenade) witnessed some irresistible wooing of the audience by the baritone.
Heinrich Heine had contributed six numbers to Schwanengesang and all were then included in the programme, but as Williams explained, each had been paired off with some lines from another poet; we were invited to explore the motives behind the couplings. Der Atlas and Mayrhofer’s Heliopolis II were for openers and literally between a rock and a hard place; Williams demonstrated the power and strength of his vocal chords. In Ihr Bild (Her Portrait) and Seidl’s Der Wanderer an den Mond (The Wanderer speaks to the Moon) there was time for reflection from Williams, his clarion tones musing on how he had lost his love in the first and his whereabouts in the second. With some exquisite top notes, despair was turned to delightful romance in Das Fischermädchen (The Fisher Girl) and Schlegel’s Der Schiller (The Sailor) both liaisons being realised ‘when the boat comes in’. Spirits sank again in Die Stadt (The Town) and Lübeck’s Der Wanderer (The Wanderer) as the heroes of both poems sought the unattainable through Williams and Burnside. Metaphors involving the sea reoccurred in Am Meer (At the Seaside) and Stollberg’s Auf dem Wasser zu Singen (In the Middle of the shimmer of the reflecting waves) the latter – one of Schubert’s best loved pieces – effervescently delivered by the two interpreters. With palpable tension, Williams demonstrated his operatic credentials in Der Doppelganger (The Ghostly Double) and Mayrhofer’s Auf der Donau (On the Danube) closing the recital.
In between the two sets of songs, Williams had said he was relatively new to Schubert. In that case, give me more! As Mr Nice-Guy, Williams doesn’t just smile at his audience, he positively beams. Enthusiastic applause from the generously filled hall emphasized the inspired five star entertainment and were rewarded with an encore, Williams and Burnside sealing their presentation with a bit of fun, a saucy rendition of The Girl from Ipanema.