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12 Jun 2020

Woman’s Hour with Roderick Williams and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

At the start of this lunchtime recital, Roderick Williams set out the rationale behind the programme that he and pianist Joseph Middleton presented at Wigmore Hall, bringing to a close a second terrific week of live lunchtime broadcasts, freely accessible via Wigmore Hall’s YouTube channel and BBC Radio 3.

Woman’s Hour: Roderick Williams (baritone) and Joseph Middleton (piano) at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Joseph Middleton and Roderick Williams


His purpose was, he explained, to put to bed the old notion that men sing ‘men’s songs’ and women sing ‘women’s song’, whatever those categories may mean. The time is ripe for change, and he wanted to encourage all singers of whatever gender to believe that the entire art song repertory was theirs to explore, perform and enjoy.

In the 19th century, repertoire gender-polarity was not a significant issue, but it’s true that, as Lawrence Kramer has suggested (in a 2011 article, ‘Sexing Song: Brigitte Fassbaender's Winterreise ’), ‘the more professionalized the performance of art song became, the more the rule of gender asymmetry prevailed. By the turn of the twentieth century it had become rigid.’ It’s generally been more common for women to adopt male personae in art song than vice versa. In 2017, Janet Wasserman (founder and executive director of the Schubert Society of the USA) published a list of 59 female singers who had recorded Winterreise from soprano Maria Ekeblad in 1910 to mezzo-soprano Ingeborg Hischer in 2014, which includes Kirsten Flagstad, Lotte Lehmann, Barbara Hendricks, Christa Ludwig, Margaret Price, Christine Schäfer and others. And, there are many more who have sung individual songs from Schubert’s song-cycle in concert and on disc.

But, if there has been no shortage of ‘courageous’ women - Alice Coote, who sang the cycle at Carnegie Hall in 2017, was thus ‘praised’ - eager to sing Schubert’s songs, and while some have been well-received, the views expressed by Matthew Gurewitsch - who asked in the New York Times in 1990 ‘Can a Woman Do a Man’s Job In Schubert’s Winterreise?’, and judged Fassbaender to have evoked ‘the adolescent hysterics of Octavian toward the end of Der Rosenkavalier’s first act’, were not atypical.

Williams would profoundly disagree with Gurewitsch’s conclusions: ‘At any rate, however astutely or partially Mozart, Goethe, Mendelssohn, Chamisso, Schumann and Loewe have penetrated the feminine psyche, no man would dream of presenting their insights in public, any more than they would impersonate the coy nymph of Debussy’s Arcadian Chansons de Bilitis.’ You just have to empathise with the protagonist’s feelings and experiences, and be able to communicate them in song, argued Williams - words not so dissimilar from Elena Gerhardt’s comment about Winterreise, ‘You have to be haunted by this cycle to be able to sing it.’

I’m absolutely on Williams’ side on this one, but there is one obvious counterargument that might be raised with respect to his Wigmore Hall programme. That is, barring one short song by Clara Schumann, the female experiences embodied in the songs he sang are not ‘female experiences’ at all, but rather male speculations and representations of imagined - perhaps desired? - female experiences. Whether poet or composer, these men cannot escape the prevailing ideology of Romantic subjectivity. The eight songs of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben are narrated by a woman but some might argue that is the man she loves and loses who is the actual ‘protagonist’ of the cycle.

One could argue this way and that for eternity, so it’s probably best just to focus on the singing itself, and this recital offered us all the pleasures and comforts that we associate with Williams’ singing: a general impression of sincerity, thoughtfulness and care; well-considered, natural diction; a lovely fresh vocal tone, by turns light and dark, but never insubstantial or overly weighty; a true and innate sense of poetic phrasing and meaning. The BBC cameraman perched in the balcony enabled us to marvel at the relaxed sensitive of Joseph Middleton’s fingers as they delicately articulated accompanying textures, sought out harmonic nuances in support of semantic inflections, and inhabited an understated but telling narratorial role throughout, but especially in the summative piano postludes, by turns restful and agitated, tragic and consoling. What I found most striking about this performance was the flexibility of the phrasing. The expressive freedom was sometimes quite marked but it never felt anything other than entirely ‘right’, indicative of a mutual appreciation of the union of poetic and musical meaning, and how to communicate this to an audience - even one far away, peering into laptop screens or reclining in an armchair beside a radio.

Williams began with three songs by Schubert and, in some ways, it seemed to me that he was most ‘himself’ here. Perhaps it was the dark tone which ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ and the less well-known ‘Die junge Nonne’ share, but the rich colours of Williams’ mid to low range were complemented by Middleton’s plunging resonance in all three songs. ‘Gretchen’ was perhaps the most overtly ‘dramatic’ song of the recital and Williams swept us immediately and magnetically into its agonies. The varying tempi, rubatos and fermata of ‘Der Tod’ were consummately handled, and here Williams was a chilling figure of Death, enticing and commanding the maiden to take the hand of her ‘Friend’ and sleep in his arms. Middleton’s energising staccato bass injected ‘Die junge Nonne’ with compelling urgency while Williams’ taut but quiet baritone captured the protagonist’s fear of the night, as dark as the grave. The harmonic shifts were brilliantly shaped by Middleton, and Williams’ major-key, even, self-composed closing “Allelulia”s suggested spiritual transfiguration rather than earthly fulfilment.

In the six songs by Brahms, Williams was appropriately lighter of voice, capturing something of the protagonist’s naivety and vulnerability. At times I wondered if the inevitable octave transposition of the vocal disturbed the registral relationship of voice and piano: in ‘An die Nachtigall’, for example, a woman’s voice would be cushioned within the generally high-lying, gentle piano rocking, whereas Williams’ baritone formed a ‘bass line melody’ in a way. I’m not sure if this matters, but it came to mind especially in the closing episodes as Middleton’s falling cascades rippled with graceful tenderness. I loved the way Williams expanded the breadth of his tone and emotive suggestiveness in the final stanza of ‘Mädchenlied’ - “Die Tränen rinnen/ Mir übers Gesicht -/ Wofür soll ich spinnen?/ Ich weiss es nicht!” (The tears go coursing/ Down my cheeks—/ What am I spinning for? I don’t know!), powerfully conveying the agony of burgeoning, not yet understood, passion and desire.

In contrast, ‘Das Mädchen spricht’ pushed forwards with impetuousness and curiosity - and with subtle temporal nuances, a certain wryness - as the young girl questions the swallow about its marriage plans! Middleton’s dancing dotted rhythms were light as air and one could imagine the girl tossing of her tresses with the staccato snap of the final terse cadence. I don’t think I’ve heard ‘Salamander’ before, and though it was brief it made a mark, in no small part due to the perspicacity of Williams’ exploitation of the text but also the piano’s concluding tumult. The contrast between the chirpy song of the insouciant nightingale at the start of ‘Nachtigall’ and the slightly ‘spiky’ melodic and rhythmic disintegration of the bird’s song at the minor-key close, as the protagonist urges the nightingale to cease tormenting them with ‘love-kindled songs’ - “Fleuch, Nachtigall, in grüne Finsternisse,/ Ins Haingesträuch,/ Und spend’ im Nest der treuen Gattin Küsse;/ Entfleuch, entfleuch!” (Fly, nightingale, to the green darkness,/ To the bushes of the grove,/ And there in the nest kiss your faithful mate;/ Fly away, fly away!) - was wonderful. One could surely hear in Middleton’s playing in this song the Brahms of the late piano intermezzos.

Clara Schumann’s ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’, though flowing and sweet was slightly lost, embedded as it was within these Brahms songs. Perhaps if Williams had really wanted to take some risks, he would have included all of Clara’s contributions to this Op.12 set? But, Clara’s was the prevailing spirit in the recital’s main work, Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben. This really was stunning singing and playing. If the martial spirit of ‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’ always leaves me feeling a little uncomfortable at Schumann’s self-representation, as he manipulates the beloved’s thoughts and feelings to accord with his Romantic sense of ‘self’, then Middleton’s brilliantly shaped and defined bass line, never heavy, always singing, balanced the books in that song! True partnership characterised ‘Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben, which needs to be simultaneously fast and precise, without heaviness, and was - with the added expressivity of some well-considered ebbs and flows of the tempo.

‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’ is one of my all-time favourite songs - nothing to do with the sentiments and everything to do with memories of playing through Schumann’s songs as a student in order to understand harmonic structure, nuance and meaning - and the duo did not disappoint, conjuring a mood of peace and solemnity. The bright energy of ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’ conveyed the bride-to-be’s impatience and joy; in the closing stanza she takes leave of her ‘sisters’ with both sadness and joy, and Middleton’s beautifully placed cadence, closing on a first-inversion chord, wonderfully both confirmed her happiness and suggested her movement forwards into a new life. After the almost delirious rapture of ‘An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust’, Wiliams’ baritone was firm but intense in the final song of the cycle, ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’. Middleton wrought every drop of harmonic inference from Schumann’s twisting, shifting colours, before the final piano postlude reminded us, with bittersweet beauty, of that innocent love, now lost, forever, along with life itself: “Ich zieh mich in mein Innres still zurück,/ Der Schleier fällt,/ Da hab ich dich und mein verlornes Glück,/ Du meine Welt!” (Silently I withdraw into myself,/ The veil falls,/ There I have you and my lost happiness,/ You, my world!)

The first performance of Frauenliebe und -leben was given by baritone Julius Stockhausen, and, further suggesting that he, and perhaps his contemporaries, had no notion of a gender-dichotomy in art song, in 1873 one of his pupils, Johanna Schwartz, sang songs from Winterreise in a recital that Stockhausen had organised for his students. Recalling his own student days, Williams described having learned Brahms’ ‘Sapphische Ode’, which was loved and recommended by one of his first teachers. It was the song that ‘kicked the whole thing off’, he explained: having submitted Brahms’ song as part of a competition programme, he was told that he could not perform it. Why? It was a ‘woman’s song’. He dedicated his encore to his first two teachers, Valerie Heath Davis and Janet Edmunds.

Claire Seymour

This recital is available to view at:

The series continues for two more weeks, until 26th June. For further information and to view previous concerts in the series click here .

Roderick Williams (baritone), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Franz Schubert - ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ D118, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ D531, Die junge Nonne’ D828; Johannes Brahms - Vier Lieder Op.46 No.4 ‘An die Nachtigall’, Fünf Lieder Op.107 No.5 ‘Mädchenlied’,Sieben Lieder Op.95 No.1 ‘Das Mädchen’; Clara Schumann -3 Songs Op.12 No.2 ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’; Johannes Brahms -Fünf Lieder Op.107 No.3 ‘Das Mädchen spricht’, No.2 ‘Salamander’,Sechs Lieder Op.97 No.1 ‘Nachtigall’; Robert Schumann - Frauenliebe und -leben Op.42.

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 12th June 2020.

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