Roderick Williams shines new, different light on George Butterworth’s songs with the Hallé

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Pärt, Butterworth, Strauss. Episode 2 – Roderick Williams sings Butterworth: Roderick Williams (baritone), Hallé / Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Performance recorded in Hallé St. Peter’s, Manchester and streamed on 10.12.2020. (JQ)

Roderick Williams and members of the Hallé

Britten – Russian Funeral
Pärt Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
George Butterworth – Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, orchestrated by Roderick Williams (world premiere)
Strauss – Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings

This concert was the second instalment in the Hallé’s winter season of concerts, filmed and perforce without the encouraging presence of an audience. The first concert in the series was reviewed by my colleague Jim Pritchard.

That first concert was given in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall; for this follow-up event the forces used were somewhat smaller and the location switched to the more intimate surroundings of Hallé St. Peter’s. The orchestra has issued a number of CD recordings made in this venue and I have heard several of them; however, until I watched this concert I had never seen inside the building. As you may well infer from the venue’s name, it is a restored and converted church. A modern extension, the Oglesby Extension, has been added which contains some extra practice rooms and other facilities. It is the nave of the former church, however, which serves as the orchestra’s rehearsal and recording venue and this is where they filmed this concert. The performance space seemed to me to be very successfully ordered and I would imagine that prior to social distancing a full orchestra could be assembled in there very satisfactorily. For the reduced forces employed on this occasion the space seemed ideally suited.

We began with Britten’s short Russian Funeral for brass and percussion. This was written in 1936 and I learned from Andrew Burn’s excellent programme note that when it was premiered that year, in a concert conducted by Alan Bush, which had an overtly political programme, it bore the title Death and War. The piece has solemn opening and closing sections which use the Soviet revolutionary song ‘You fell as victims’. This melody will be familiar to anyone who knows Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony in which it forms the basis of the slow movement. I was fascinated to read in Andrew Burn’s notes that at the time he composed Russian Funeral Britten was playing the Soviet composer’s First Piano Concerto. Shostakovich’s symphony was composed some 20 years later and I am sure it’s just a coincidence that both composers used this revolutionary tune; it is very unlikely that Shostakovich knew Russian Funeral because Britten withdrew the work after its first performance and it was not until 1970 that Philip Jones was instrumental in the work’s revival.

The Hallé’s brass section, supported by their percussionist colleagues, gave a fine performance of the piece. The solemnity of the outer sections was expertly judged and the somewhat quicker middle section was incisively played.

Because the concert was recorded, we were able to move seamlessly into Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. The two composers never met but the Estonian was much moved by Britten’s death in 1976 and composed this tribute in the following year. It’s an early example of his ‘tintinnabuli’ style and is scored for string orchestra supplemented by a tubular bell which tolls frequently throughout the piece. Essentially the music is a canon but the listener is largely unaware of Pärt’s compositional skill, so deceptively simply is it deployed. Instead, one’s focus is on the rarefied beauty of the sound, especially in so fine a performance as this. I was interested to see that Sir Mark had his violins and violas standing up to play – as was the case in the Strauss work later – and he divided his violins left and right so that the richer timbres of the violas and cellos were at the heart of the sound. Elder directed an intense performance which seemed to me to be ideally paced. Listening through headphones, I admired very much the tone of the strings.

Roderick Williams joined the orchestra for George Butterworth’s Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad. We heard this in a brand-new orchestration which the Hallé has commissioned from Williams. I was very keen to hear this for two reasons. Firstly, because I have heard this fine singer perform these wonderful songs many times with their piano accompaniment and I was eager to hear what they would sound like with the addition of orchestral colours. Secondly, I have previously experienced an orchestration of English songs by Roderick Williams, in that case Vaughan Williams’s cycle The House of Life. That struck me as a very successful orchestration when I heard it in 2017 (review) and this augured well for Williams’s take on Butterworth’s songs.

In the programme notes, Williams revealed that he had previously scored the songs for string chamber orchestra. The Hallé commission presumably gave him the opportunity to explore the songs afresh and as he said in the note, he was inspired by Butterworth’s own orchestral rhapsody A Shropshire Lad. ‘However, I’m aware that these songs are extraordinary miniatures and I was guided by that evergreen principle – Less is More.’  So far as I could see, the orchestral forces comprised two of each woodwind instrument (with some doubling), horns – two, I think – timpani, percussion (very sparingly used and requiring only one player), harp and strings. Williams sang from a position in the centre of the orchestra, right in front of the conductor.

I thought the orchestrations were outstandingly successful. Williams had indeed honoured the ‘Less is More’ principle. Heard in an orchestral dressing the songs inevitably become a little larger in scale than we are accustomed to hearing with just a piano. However, the scoring did not over-inflate the music and a sense of intimacy was retained. The instruments were used imaginatively. For example, I liked the prominence of flute and harp in ‘Loveliest of trees’ and also the way the horn shadows the vocal line towards the close of ‘When I was one-and-twenty’ (‘And oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true’). The pastel, pastoral colourings were well-chosen for ‘Look not in my eyes’ and I very much approved of the fact that delicate scoring supported the vocal line in ‘The lads in their hundreds’ without distracting the listener from the singer’s delivery. ‘Is my team ploughing?’ was insightfully scored. Strings and flutes imparted a ghostly ambience in the stanzas which express the dead man’s thoughts while a slightly fuller scoring was entirely appropriate for the robust rejoinders of his surviving friend. The very last chord included a doom-laden bass note on the harp and possibly – I couldn’t be sure – a soft gong stroke: it was an ideally atmospheric conclusion.

Roderick Williams sang the songs with all the insight and care for the words which one has come to take almost for granted from this artist. In my experience there are few singers currently before the public who sing these wonderful songs by Butterworth so well, and with these new orchestrations, he has put his stamp on them in another way. At the end, as the orchestra began to applaud him, I heard Sir Mark Elder exclaim ‘Lovely, Roddy’. Was he referring to the singing or the orchestrations? Probably to both. The orchestrations tastefully cast new light on these songs – without putting the music under a glaring spotlight. I am keen to hear this version again: I wonder if the orchestra might issue the audio recording on their own label

Finally in this programme of recollective music we heard Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen. Composed, at the request of Paul Sacher, between 1944 and 1945, the work is Strauss’s lament for the High Culture of Germany, ravaged by Nazi rule and the Second World War. As so often, the late Michael Kennedy had the perfect comment, included in his programme note: ‘In [Metamorphosen] we hear the destruction of all his heroic artistic ideals. “The Hero’s Life” in E flat is, quite simply, shattered in C minor.’

In a short pre-performance discussion between Sir Mark and a couple of the players, the point was made that the requirements of social distancing made a difference to the sonority. Interestingly, only a few days earlier I had heard a streamed performance of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra playing another string masterpiece, Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia (review). In that performance a more substantial body of strings was involved but they were playing in a much larger space than Hallé St. Peter’s. What was common to both performances, though, was that the players must have had to concentrate in a different way and focus more intensely than would normally be the case when they could sit or stand closer together. Also common to both performances was the fact that the players not only surmounted any such difficulties but, as it seemed to me, used the challenge of distancing to stimulate them to give a performance in which they were clearly listening to each other intently and in a new way.

In this performance of Metamorphosen I am sure the members of the Hallé were working hard to maintain ensemble and to listen to each other across the distances of the hall. All I can say is that I was not at all conscious of that hard work; the performance was woven together wonderfully. I referred earlier to the deceptive simplicity of Arvo Pärt’s music. Metamorphosen stands poles apart from Pärt, not least in the rich complexity of Strauss’s polyphony which was here rendered with pleasing clarity. The present performance was memorable. I noticed that for this work Sir Mark reverted to having all the violins on his left and this time he placed the violas on his right. That was entirely appropriate to the scoring, not least in the rich, elegiac opening pages in which Strauss deliberately holds back the violins, leaving the lower end of the ensemble to establish the mood. In this slowly-paced music – and again when Strauss returns to the Adagio – I admired Elder’s pacing of the music: he captured all the gravitas and sorrow while allowing the music to flow. That sense of flow was even more apparent in the central section of the piece which gradually became more and more impassioned. As I listened to the challengingly complex polyphony, I reflected that Strauss may have been conveying a sense of loss in this piece but he still remained a virtuoso composer, stretching players to the limit. Sir Mark injected urgency into the central section and that urgency was carried over, in spirit if not pace, when Strauss reverted to the opening Adagio material. This final section of the piece was played with particular eloquence and the short quotation from the Eroica as the work drew to its close seemed to come quite naturally and inevitably out of everything that had gone before. I admired this performance of Metamorphosen enormously

This was a very fine concert indeed. The programme was discerningly chosen and fitted together well. The playing of the Hallé was rewarding and highly committed from start to finish. The presentation was excellent. The camera work was unobtrusive while the quality of the sound, engineered by Steve Portnoi, the orchestra’s regular Tonmeister, was extremely good. The concert is available for streaming for three months, following this link where you’ll also find details of future concerts.

John Quinn        

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