Roderick Williams review


Three Choirs Festival at Cheltenham College *****
His phenomenal talent aside, Roderick Williams is loved by audiences for his engagement with them. The baritone's eyes cover every one of us present (and here in the splendid College Theatre there was not even hasty extra seating to be had), his responsive body-language draws us in, he is totally generous of himself -- and he talks to us as if to old friends.
His nattering began by paying tribute to the Three Choirs Festival (this year in Gloucester) and its courageous foresight in allowing him to present an English song recital which was not of the usual run-of-the mill "safe" variety. Instead of the usual Shropshire Lads and Songs of Travel we were given Volume 7 of local-boy Parry's English Lyrics and, in a performance which convinced us how shameful is its neglect, the first real English song-cycle, Somervell's Maud.
The Parry, some of its settings of largely Shakespearean and Jacobean texts Brahmsian, others lighter and giving the opportunity for vocal characterisation, revealed almost unobtrusive voice-control from Williams, not least in the wide-ranging and breath-demanding Sleep.
As Williams explained, Somervell's selection of texts from Tennyson's huge epic poem Maud emphasises the bi-polar attitudes of the protagonist, the general darkness belied by the often easy fluency of the vocal line, bringing a problem for the soloist in his delivery. Williams managed this dichotomy magnificently, aided by a silent film-like recourse to facial expression, and supported by Susie Allan's fleet and alert pianism in keyboard writing which so often evokes Schumann with a shot of Liszt.
Maud is an under-rated, under-performed masterpiece, and in its entirety deserves to be taken up, not least to remove the parlour-song context of someone else's weaker setting of "Come into the garden, Maud". Incidentally, the outcome of a heartbroken, embittered young man sending himself off to war is not that far away from, yes, A Shropshire Lad.
Two early Vaughan Williams songs, atmospheric in their different ways, were preceded by a set of songs by contemporary English composers, Kevin Brown, Bernadette Marmion (actually Irish), Christopher Maxim, Elaine Hugh-Jones and Pamela Mellor, all well-crafted and deeply-felt.
And premiered in this group was Ian Venables' What then?, a chilling setting of W.B. Yeats' thought-provoking questioning poem. Brilliantly structured, with an inexorably trudging piano-part (think of the middle section of Chopin's D-flat Prelude) and a gripping refrain at the end of each verse, it ends with a huge final reiteration of the question.
What then? Huge applause for Venables, the featured composers assembled here, and not least for Roderick Williams and Susie Allan.
Christopher Morley

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