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Shropshire lad english songs CDHLL7559
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A Shropshire Lad
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 2022, Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester
Texts included
HALLÉ CDHLL7559 [73]

In addition to his busy career as a concert and opera singer, Roderick Williams is attracting more and more notice as a composer and arranger. (How does he find the time in addition to all his rehearsing and performing commitments?) I was aware of his orchestral arrangements of the song cycles by Butterworth and Vaughan Williams, both of which I’ve heard before in live performance, but I hadn’t realised that Williams had orchestrated so many other songs.

I first encountered his work as an orchestrator of songs when I heard him as soloist in his arrangement of The House of Life at the Chipping Campden Festival in May 2017 (review). It wasn’t made clear at the time, but it turns out, from reading Andrew Burn’s notes for this CD, that Williams orchestrated the first two songs some years ago and then completed the set at the invitation of the Chipping Campden Festival. So, I presume I heard the premiere of the full set. Just before receivnig this disc, I read William Hedey's review of a new CD of Vaughan Williams songs, which includes The House of Life. I was most interested to see that William quoted a comment from Francis Pott's booklet notes in which Pott says that much of the writing in the accompaniment has a "sense of an orchestra waiting in the wings". This orchestration by Rodrick Williams brings the orchestra out of the wings and onto the stage itself.   

In the first song, ‘Love-sight’, the diaphanous scoring (strings, woodwind and harp) for much of the song is exactly right; brass and timpani are added to the palette later on. The famous ‘Silent noon’ is most expressively sung here. I like the way horns are used to warm the orchestral textures. Andrew Burn makes a fascinating point in connection with the opening of ‘Love’s minstrels’ when he comments that the syncopated rhythms “would later evoke the Thames in A London Symphony”. That thought had never occurred to me when listening to the piano original but if you listen to the music as orchestrated by Roderick Williams, I think you’ll agree with Burn’s perception. The most remarkable feature of this song, though, is the nature of the accompaniment, which is often very spare. The poem refers to harp and ‘hautboy’ (oboe) and Williams makes evocative use of both instruments. The Hallé oboist Stephane Rancourt and harpist Marie Leenhardt make evocative contributions. I suspect that now whenever I hear the piano original of this song, I shall have the orchestral colours in my mind’s ear. Williams uses horns and trumpets very effectively to deliver the fanfare-like motifs in ‘Death in love’. Finally, in ‘Love’s last gift’ he displays a truly perceptive ear for orchestral colouring to reinforce VW’s word-setting and, through the use of instruments, to enhance it into word-painting.

I deliberately refrained from looking back at my review of the Chipping Campden performance until after I’d written my comments in this review. On doing so, I’m glad – and somewhat relieved - to find that my judgements about this recorded performance largely echo the thoughts I had when I first heard the orchestrated songs live. Obviously, for this recording, Williams will have had the benefit of a microphone but in live performance my recollection, backed up by the review, was that his various scorings were sufficiently skilful that the voice was not swamped.

The world premiere of the orchestration of George Butterworth’s cycle was given in a streamed concert from Hallé St Peter’s in December 2020. I viewed that performance (review) but this CD contains a subsequent recording of the songs. It’s very appropriate to hear these songs in orchestral dress because the composer himself wrote an orchestral Rhapsody in which he uses thematic material from the songs. Butterworth’s own scoring is fuller than the forces which Williams has used but, of course, Butterworth did not have to take into consideration the need for the orchestra not to overpower a solo singer. Initially, back in 2011, Roderick Williams made a version for string orchestra but I’m glad he took the opportunity to score for a wider range of instruments. The forces that he uses are not stated in the booklet. However, based on what I saw and heard when the orchestration was premiered, I believe he deploys two of each woodwind instrument (with some doubling), two horns, timpani, percussion (very sparingly used and requiring only one player), harp and strings. I felt at first hearing that the orchestrations were very successful and rehearing them now reinforces that impression. He says that he has proceeded from the old principle, ‘less is more’.

Woodwind lines stand out to particularly good effect in ‘Loveliest of trees’. Later, in ‘Look not in my eyes’ I very much like the light scoring for strings and woodwind early on; this emphasises the youthful innocence of the poem. In this song Williams displays great finesse, both in his scoring and in his singing. ‘The lads in their hundreds’ benefits from very discreet orchestration. Williams’ singing is delightful in its lightness and in his care for the words; he catches the nostalgic aspect perfectly. I’ve heard many baritones give fine performances of this song but I’ve long felt that no one delivers the last two lines better than Roderick Williams. He has a seemingly effortless way of investing all the poem with meaning, but especially these two lines (‘They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man / The lads that will die in their glory and never be old’). So it is here. The cycle concludes with ‘Is my team ploughing?’ Here, Williams uses hushed, pallid orchestral colours to accompany the words of the dead young man; the colourings are different every time and each selection works wonderfully. Appropriately, the scoring for the verses that articulate his friend’s responses is more robust. At the very end, we hear harp and a soft tam-tam; a masterstroke.

Andrew Burn tells us that in December 2021 Roderick Williams orchestrated a number of songs by female composers; all are included here. I presume that since the songs are not grouped together on the disc, they were not designed as a set. It was only last year that I became acquainted with the songs of Ina Boyle thanks to a marvellous Delphian disc (review). On that occasion all the songs were accompanied by piano, of course. I’m delighted that Williams selected one, The Joy of Earth to orchestrate. It’s a marvellous song and I think Andrew Burn’s comment that the poem “soars with imagery of the skylark” is spot on. The orchestral scoring is most interesting in that it dispenses with strings with the exception of a solo violin. That instrument is entrusted with the decorative lines of the piano’s right hand. This orchestration is a conspicuous success. Ruth Gipps’ song The pulley was completely new to me. It’s a strange song in which the composer sets a poem by George Herbert. Andrew Burn rightly refers to “austere chromatic harmony”. Williams scores it, very effectively, for string orchestra. I must admit that I don’t find this song immediately appealing – I hope that will come with time – but the orchestration and performance are excellent.

Madeleine Dring’s Take, O take those lips away is a much more straightforward proposition. It’s a charming, lilting song and Williams has used a palette of mainly pastel colours, which suits the music ideally. It’s only a couple of years ago that I became acquainted with Rebecca Clarke’s The seal man. This is a daring and very interesting setting of lines by John Masefield. I was intrigued to read that at the time he was making this orchestration Roderick Williams was engaged in rehearsals with Mark Elder and the Hallé for the UK premiere of James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio, a work I have not yet heard; I’m eager to do so. Williams says that his orchestration of this song, and especially the use of harp, vibraphone and celeste, represents a ‘nod’ to MacMillan’s sound world. His scoring is audacious – indeed, I think it’s the most inventive of all the orchestrations that we hear on this CD – and I feel that it enriches Clarke’s music greatly. I get the allusion to James MacMillan. However, this orchestration opened my ears to something else which I’d not previously got from the piano version, namely the song’s affinity to Vaughan Williams’ opera Riders to the Sea. Williams sings the song marvellously, really drawing us in to the compelling but strange narrative. This is a highlight of the disc.

The two orchestrations of songs by John Ireland were made in 2017 for a concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Great Things is a setting of a poem by Thomas Hardy. There’s an element of heartiness to Ireland’s music, which Williams catches in his scoring. However, the music has passages which call for a more delicate touch, and in these the scoring is suitably lighter. Sea Fever is a classic English song. The nostalgia in both words and music calls for somewhat darker hues in the scoring and that’s what we get here. Roderick Williams gives a most poetic performance. I love his orchestration of another great English song, To Gratiana dancing and singing. The stately piano part is perceptively clothed in orchestral raiment. Williams’ singing of the song is elevated and eloquent.

It’s fitting that a song by James Burton should be included because there’s a Hallé connection: he was the Choral Director of the Hallé Choir between 2002 and 2009. He composed his setting of the Hardy poem When I set out for Lyonesse in 2012 and Roderick Williams gave the professional premiere in 2020; presumably he orchestrated it subsequently. It’s a good song and I love the perky writing for both woodwind and brass that Williams has included. Both music and orchestration are witty.

The album ends with Silent noon by Ernest Farrar (1885-1918), which Williams orchestrated in 2018. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know this song. I learned from the booklet that it’s the second of three Vagabond Songs (1908). Not knowing the music, I wondered, when I saw the track list, whether it would stand comparison with VW’s famous setting. Well, it does. I concur with Andrew Burn’s description of the song: “a contemplative rapt idyll”. Farrar’s setting is very beautiful and Williams sings it exquisitely, It may be my imagination but at the lines ‘Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower, / This close-companioned inarticulate hour’, I fancied that I heard just a slight echo of VW’s 1903 setting of the same words. If so, the influence is entirely beneficial.

This is a marvellous album. We know Roderick Williams is a superb exponent of English song and all his performances on this disc confirm that. As ever, he is acutely sensitive to the words and spins wonderful vocal lines. Under the perceptive guidance of Sir Mark Elder, the Hallé play all these orchestrations with sensitivity and distinction. As I’ve indicated in my comments on the various songs, I think the orchestrations themselves are highly successful. In every case, the scorings seem to me to add a new dimension to the songs without ever exaggerating the accompaniment at the expense of the vocal line. The choice of orchestral timbres and colours is consistently perceptive and seems right. I hope that Roderick Williams will continue to explore the art song repertoire as an orchestrator, perhaps turning his gaze towards French mélodies as well as to more of the riches of the world of English song.

Producer Jeremy Hayes and engineer Steve Portnoi have ensured that these performances have been recorded very sympathetically; the balance between the solo voice and the instruments is consistently successful. Andrew Burn’s notes are very good.

Lovers of English song should investigate this disc and experience how new, perceptive light has been shone on these poetic compositions.

John Quinn

Orchestrations by Roderick Williams
John Ireland: Great Things
John Ireland: Sea Fever
Ina Boyle: The Joy of Earth
William Denis Browne: To Gratiana dancing and singing
George Butterworth: Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’
Ruth Gipps: The pulley
Ralph Vaughan Williams: The House of Life
Madeleine Dring: Take, O take those lips away
James Burton: When I set out for Lyonesse
Rebecca Clarke: The seal man
Ernest Farrar: Silent noon

Published: November 7, 2022

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