Songs by Butterworth, Ireland, Venables, Vaughan Williams, Gurney, Quilter, Warlock, Moeran, Britten and Finzi.
Roderick Williams, baritone; Susie Allan, piano. SOMMCD 0177
The final concert in the Tardebigge series which gives its name to this disc was, fittingly, given by a singer and pianist who had contributed much to the concerts over many years. The roll of singers and pianists who performed at Tardebigge is illustrious, to say the least, but the singer on this disc was both a favourite of so many, and his approach so closely identified with the ideals of the series, that he was the logical choice to end many years of happy music making. The suggestion was made that the programme on that occasion should be committed to disc, and here it is.
The disc is a fine compilation of some of the most noteworthy English art songs,although those averse to melancholy, wistfulness or poignancy might wish to dip in and out as these moods tend to dominate the genre. Careful planning of the recital, however, means that any danger of an over-rich diet of suchfare is averted by strategic placing of more robust repertoire, such as Ireland’s Great Things or Gurney’s setting of Masefield’s Captain Stratton’s Fancy, together with the gentle humour of Venables’ Flying Crooked. Listening to the complete disc it is Gurney’s songs which stand out by virtue of their distinctive harmonic language. Ireland’s chromatic intensity is ideally suited to the genre, and in some ways is still underrated for its impact, for example in the poignant Housman setting In Boyhood and the variety of textures employed in the imaginative Youth’s Sweet Tribute. This setting of a Dante Gabriel Rossettisonnet handles this notoriously tricky poetic structure with aplomb. Ireland’s influence is clear in the music of Venables and a familial harmonic relationship can be heard in Moeran, Quilter and even Warlock. This contrasts well with Butterworth and theearly Vaughan Williams represented here, which look back more to the late nineteenth century. Yet it is Gurney’s harmonic world which seems totake us furthest into the emotional world of the poetry he sets, forexample in the shifting moods of BlackStitchel, each vividly presented. The inflections are melodic, harmonic and, crucially, structural, in terms of phrase lengths, which lengthen or contract according to mood. What Gurney achieves here is a fluidity which sets the music at the service of the poetry. In this, he shares a significant characteristic with Finzi, of course, although on this disc we do not hear Finzi setting Hardy, as was so frequently, and memorably, the case. What is often overlooked in considering Let us Garlands Bring is that Finzi is setting Shakespeare, albeit often, although not exclusively, Shakespeare writing song lyrics, such as ‘O Mistress Mine’. The challenges Shakespeare poses, not least in audience terms of familiarity with other composers’ settings, are met with exactitude by Finzi, particularly in the masterly ‘Fear no more’.
The performances are intimate, as befits the disc as a record of the Tardebigge experience. At times the recording might have opened out a little more frequently, as it does successfully for Captain Stratton, particularly with regard to the piano, which occasionally sounds a touch brittle. (It might have been good for the tuner to spend a little more time at the lower end of the piano as well, before The Vagabond, particularly.) Ensemble is tight and Susie Allan breathes with the singer but also takes the initiative when the music demands. Changes of mood are uniform between singer and pianist, and smaller-scale inflexions are seemingly effortless, including in the tortuous, if brief, white-knuckle ride for both performers that is Warlock’sJillian of Berry. The full, masterly rhythmic flexibility in these performances is only fully apparent when what is heard is compared with what is on the pages of the scores.
And the singer? It is instructive to hear this disc after Roderick Williams’recent performances as Billy Budd and Balstrode on the much bigger canvases of Britten operas. He remains for many the ultimate ‘English baritone’ voice, but comparison of this disc with operatic performances shows that this label has been earned, not won by virtue of belonging to any vocal ‘type’. Roderick Williams crafts each song, varying vocal timbre with finesse, and his range of colours is wide. Thus A Shropshire Lad has a lightness of tone to match the youthful age of the poetry’s subject, without darkening the vowel sounds. There is a seeming fragility in the sound (not the technique!) throughout the cycle, except when characterising the ‘wise man’ in the second song. This gives a much more meaningful context to ‘Is my team ploughing’ than performances where the vocal timbre is suddenly reduced just for that final song. There is similar restraint in Silent Noonwhich prevents the song from outstripping the perspective of what is an intimate, delicate poem. Elsewhere in the discgreater warmth of tone, and greater resonance is used, to equally good effect, particularly in Finzi, hinting at the weight of voice which the singer possesses, but uses sparingly in this genre. This is a singer who thinks carefully about the timbre he wants for different vowel sounds in different contexts. For example, endings of English words which can be tricky when set to music which elongates the vowel, such as ‘ness’, are carefully and always sensitively sung, and with varied colour. All the decisions which Roderick Williams makes are at the service of the text and the music. And, finally, to that seemingly effortless breath control: go no further than to the third song of A Shropshire Lad to hear how technique can be at the service of a song. The tempo is fluid but also has poise and is seemingly unhurried. Much of this is achievable because the singer can run two phrases together without seeming about to falter. For example, when the final verse is reached the singer manages ‘With downward eye and gazes sad, Stands amid the glancing showers’ in a single breath. In this song many singers breathe between every line of text, creating a hiatus in the flow of Butterworth’s irregular metre, and consequent bumps in the song’s path. Such is this singer’s technique that we barely notice him breathe and the music in this song, as with so many others on the disc, flows effortlessly and intelligently.