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Reviews

Roderick Williams
07 Dec 2016

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

An English Winter Journey

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Roderick Williams

Photo credit: Groves Artists

 

Baritone and pianist are both experienced exponents of Schubert’s Winterreise, having performed the work, in Williams’ case, in both German and English, and in Drake’s case with numerous internationally renowned singers. This Temple Song Series recital was musically rewarding, intellectually stimulating and emotionally fulfilling in equal measure.

The poems by Wilhelm Müller which Schubert set in 1828 are vivified by the sublime gothic imagery of Romantic excess. Mary Shelley’s ‘everlasting ices of the north’ - where the snows descend upon Victor Frankenstein as he obsessively seeks the monster of his own creation, ‘ cursed by some devil and carr[ying] about with me my eternal hell’ - are the Wanderer’s home.

The language, musical and poetic, of the songs selected by Williams and Drake is, predominantly, more nostalgic and elegiac. As Williams noted in an engaging opening address, the music of Ivor Gurney and the poetry of Thomas Hardy recur frequently in their chosen sequence. This is less the language of radical revolution than pensive reflection on a passing age and the lamented loss of erstwhile values. But, alongside the wistful contemplations of the poets and composers of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Williams and Drake gave us some contemporary songs that served to create an ongoing temporal narrative.

Müller’s poems rove through diverse, destabilising emotional fields: from energy to listlessness; idealism to sensuality; penetrating bitterness to dry irony. And, Schubert’s settings glisten with sonic imagery. The selection of songs presented by Williams and Drake both reflect and develop these predecessors. Williams described the process of assembling the sequence as one of ‘free association’.

Some songs presented a natural parallel to Schubert and Müller. The steady perambulation of Schubert’s opening song, ‘Gute Nacht’, was emulated here by the dry tread of Robert Louis Stephenson’s vagabond, as dramatized by Vaughan Williams. Vocal flourishes such the animation of the end of the first verse - ‘ There’s the life for me’ - and the dark colouring of the subsequent plea - ‘All I ask, the heaven above/And the road below me’ - confirmed the vitality of Williams’ delivery. And, his sensitivity to dynamic nuance was utterly persuasive, the veiled final stanza culminating in a more laboured plea, ‘All I ask, is the heaven above/ And the road below me’.

Müller’s ‘Die Wetterfahne’, in which the weathervane creaks in the shifting wind, was evocatively matched by Shakespeare’s ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ as set by Roger Quilter; here the detailed eddying of blast and breeze in Drake’s accompaniment was immensely stirring, and Williams’ baritone shivered: ‘Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky’. Amid the well-known fare, there were wonderful rarities. Madeleine Dring’s ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’ (Anon.) was a magical lullaby, the gentle eloquence of both voice and piano utterly beguiling. There was stirring theatre too. Finzi’s setting of Hardy’s ‘At Middle-Field gate in February roved through the fog as Drake’s even, easy touch became emotively mired in the ‘clammy and clogging’ ploughland, rocking dissonantly, as Williams effectively modulated his vocal tone.

Schubert’s ‘Der Lindenbaum’ is a reminder of happier days, luring the poet-narrator towards a rest he ultimately rejects, though its appeal echoes in retrospect: ‘Here you would find peace.’ Its complement here, Vaughan Williams’ setting of William Barnes’ ‘Linden Lea’, surged lyrically forward, undemonstrative but direct. The image of ‘cloudless sunshine overhead’ was injected by Williams with a warmth and expansion that was deeply consoling; there was pleasing self-assurance in the quickening step of the final stanza, though a sudden withdrawal before the final three lines of lingering allegiance - ‘Or take again my homeward road/ To where, for me, the apple tree/ Do lean down low in Linden Lea’ - was moving.

The turbulence hidden by the frozen landscape as evoked by Müller in ‘Auf dem Flusse’ was recalled in Hubert Parry’s setting of Langdon Elwyn Mitchell’s ‘Nightfall in winter’. The piano prelude dripped chillingly, icy drops falling from wintry branches, and Williams’ baritone was gently hushed: ‘Cold is the air/ The woods are bare/ And brown’. But, later, the piano’s ethereal swirling conjured emotional unrest of Williams’ statement - sustained, growing in strength - that ‘The night is come’. Ivor Gurney’s ‘On the Downs’ (John Masefield), which followed segue, had rhetorical force, while in Finzi’s eerie setting of Thomas Hardy’s ‘In the mind’s eye’, the phantom of Hardy’s first wife, Emma, was as false and deceiving as the Will o’ the Wisp of Schubert’s ‘Irrlicht’. Only with the certainty that ‘She abides with me’ did Williams’ baritone acquire a fuller warmth, and the piano’s echoing repetitions of the vocal line in the final verse confirmed the eternal presence of Emma’s ghostly form. Gurney’s ‘Sleep’ (John Fletcher) was introspective but, in the enriched final plea, ‘O let my joyes have some abiding’, deeply earnest; I was impressed by the way the restrained evenness of the piano accompaniment made its own telling impact.

In Schubert’s ‘Frühlingstraum’ the wanderer dreams of springtime and love but wakes to a numbing darkness and the shrieking of ravens. George Butterworth’s setting of Housman’s ‘Bredon Hill’ began with the vibrant ringing of bells as Williams sang brightly of happy memories. But thoughts of air-born larks, Sunday gatherings and ‘springing thyme’ gave way to more sombre reflections on love and loss. In the final stanza Williams responded to the tolling beckoning with the plummeting acquiescence, ‘I hear you’, and a dark confirmation, ‘I will come’. Williams’ technical assurance in Gurney’s ‘The folly of being comforted’ (Yeats) allowed him to communicate both loneliness and the hope that Time would make ‘her beauty over again’. Any sense of consolation, however, was swept aside by the pained disintegration of the closing lines - ‘O heart! O heart! If she’d but turn her head,/ You’d know the folly of being comforted.’

The clanging dissonances of the journeying railway carriage in Britten’s ‘Midnight on the Great Western’ were an onomatopoeic match for the post-horn of Schubert’s ‘Die Post’, and it was to Thomas Hardy that Drake and Williams turned again to engage with the draining despondency of ‘Die Krähe’ (The Crow) and ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ (Last Hope). The dreamy melodiousness of Judith Weir’s setting of ‘The Darkling Thrush’ was punctuated by harp-like flourishes in the piano part which prompted the voice to tremulous enrichment and hope, as the thrush’s ‘full-hearted evensong/ Of joy illimited’ was heard. Drake’s introduction to Gerald Finzi’s ‘The too short time’ seeped limpidly but Williams’ penetrating focus animated the poetry, and the piano surged with momentum into the second stanza’s vision of sunlight that ‘goes on shining/ As if no frost were here’. These two Hardy settings were preceded by Williams’ own setting of Blake’s ‘The Angel’, where the gentle brushes of the piano established a compelling pulse for the unaccompanied folk-like melody which highlighted the intent communicativeness of Williams’ baritone.

In Vaughan Williams’ ‘Whither must I wander?’ (Robert Louis Stevenson) Williams’ strong lower register had a demotic directness that was persuasive and enthralling. He again proved himself a natural storyteller in Butterworth’s ‘The lads in their hundreds’ (Housman), singing with an absorbing directness of expression which made its point about the lads who ‘will die in their glory and never be old’ without undue sentimentality. Britten’s rhythmically sprung setting of Walter de la Mare’s ‘Autumn’ conjured a sad, troubling wind, redolent of the stormy swirls of Schubert’s ‘Der stürmische Morgen’.

The closing songs of the sequence acquired a disturbing urgency. The despairing supplication at the end of Britten’s ‘Before Life and After’ (Hardy) - ‘How long, how long?’ will it be ‘Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed’ - gave way to the ceaseless wandering in the ‘unfathomable deep forest’ of Gurney’s ‘Lights Out’ (Edward Thomas). Williams found courage in Tippett’s appeal, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (Shakespeare); the baritone relished the drama of Tippett’s word-setting: ‘The watch dogs bark;/ Bow-wow,/ Hark hark!’ The piano’s speculative rovings opened Britten’s ‘I wonder as I wander’ (Anon.) and Drake repeatedly vivified the details of the largely unaccompanied vocal line. The open vista of the ending, ‘I wonder as I wander out under the sky’, was closed only by the chords which commenced the following, final song - Gurney’s setting of John Masefield’s ‘By a bierside’. Williams had saved his strongest vocal presence for this closing song: his baritone was true and penetrating, ‘It is most grand to die’, while Drake’s postlude was filled with fury, majesty and, ultimately, sadness, the final notes seeming to call to us from beyond the grave.

Williams has an innately relaxed baritone and an open-hearted demeanour. His diction was exemplary and his alertness to textual nuance impressive. The low platform and semi-circular configuration in Middle Temple Hall encouraged a closeness and warmth between performers and listeners. Seated to the central fore, I often felt that Williams was singing directly and intently to me alone.

Claire Seymour

An English Winter Journey: Roderick Williams (baritone) and Julius Drake (piano)

Ralph Vaughan Williams: ‘The vagabond’; Roger Quilter: ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’; Madeleine Dring: ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’; Gerald Finzi: ‘At Middle-Field gate in February’; Vaughan Williams: ‘Linden Lea’, ‘Tears, idle tears’; Hubert Parry: ‘Nightfall in winter’; Ivor Gurney: ‘On the downs’; Finzi: ‘In the mind’s eye’: Gurney: ‘Sleep’; George Butterworth: ‘Bredon Hill’; Gurney: ‘The folly of being comforted’; Benjamin Britten: ‘Midnight on the Great Western’; Roderick Williams: ‘The Angel’; Judith Weir: ‘Written on terrestrial things’; Finzi: ‘The too short time’; Vaughan Williams: ‘Whither must I wander?’; Britten: ‘Autumn’; Butterworth: ‘The lads in their hundreds’; Britten: ‘Before life and after’; Gurney: ‘Lights Out’; Michael Tippett: ‘Come unto these yellow sands’; Britten: ‘I wonder as I wander’; Gurney: ‘By a bierside’.

Middle Temple Hall, London; Monday 5th December 2016.

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