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Three Choirs Festival 2010 (6)  -  Songs by Finzi, Moeran, Gurney, Head, Venables and Butterworth: Roderick Williams (baritone); Suzie Allen (piano)The Church of St. Mary de Lode, Gloucester 14.8.2010 (JQ)


Gerald Finzi: To a Poet, Op. 13a

Ernest John Moeran: Seven Poems of James Joyce

Ivor Gurney: Dinny Hill

The Sea is full of wandering foam

Down by the Salley Gardens

Praise of Ale

Michael Head: Money O!

Lean out of the window

You cannot dream things lovelier

Tewkesbury Road

Ian Venables: The Pine Boughs Past Music

George Butterworth: Folk Songs from Sussex


Earlier this year, baritone Roderick Williams gave a wonderful recital of English songs in this very church. That recital was the climax of the eightieth season of the Gloucester Music Society and as part of the programme Williams, accompanied on that occasion by Andrew West, gave the first performance of a new song cycle by Ian Venables (review). The last full day of this year’s Three Choirs Festival brought him back to the same church for a recital of English songs in which Williams offered us a welcome opportunity to hear the Venables cycle again.

He opened with songs by Finzi. The previous night I’d heard Finzi on a much larger canvass in the shape of Intimations of Immortality. It was fascinating, therefore, to have the almost immediate contrast of hearing the same composer in a much more intimate vein. To a Poet is one of four sets of songs posthumously assembled from those unpublished at the time of Finzi’s death by his widow, Joy, their son, Christopher, and his great friend, Howard Ferguson. Roderick Williams recorded them a few years ago (review).

Right from the start it was evident that the singer was on top form. One of the many things I admire about Williams is his exemplary diction and, perhaps, this is most important of all when he sings Finzi since words were so vital to that composer. His advocacy of these songs was very persuasive and, of course, the recital experience allows for a degree of engagement with the listener that’s not feasible on disc. In this collection I especially admired the fourth song, ‘The Birthright’, which is founded on a quintessential Finzi melody. Here Williams span an exquisite vocal line. In the following song, ‘June on Castle Hill’, his delivery of the opening line of the second stanza, “Earth sleeps in peace”, had great beauty. He then built up the emotion compellingly as the music darkened during that stanza. The concluding song, ‘Ode on the rejection of St. Cecilia’, is a powerful utterance and Williams and his admirable pianist, Suzie Allen, built and sustained the tension admirably in a splendid account of the piece.

The songs of E. J. Moeran are not the most familiar recital fare these days and most of them have been unknown to me until the recent release of a complete survey of them on disc, in which Roderick Williams is one of the featured soloists (review). The Seven Poems by James Joyce, offered in this programme, was one of his contributions to that set. Copyright issues prevented the printing of the texts in the Festival programme – Chandos Records had the same problem with the Joyce Estate, it seems – so it was as well for the audience that Williams enunciated the words with his usual clarity. The first song, ‘Strings in the Earth and Air’, has a nice gentle lilt to it, which singer and pianist brought out well. The following two songs, both short, are lively and the music was well articulated by both artists. I enjoyed the easeful lyricism of ‘The Pleasant Valley’ while the final two songs call for lots of legato. Since legato is Roderick Williams’s stock-in-trade these pieces were particularly well suited to him. I found that the songs, which I still don’t know well enough, made a stronger impression when heard live than on disc and I was grateful for the chance to hear them in performance.

To close the first half Roderick Williams offered us a group by Gloucester’s own Ivor Gurney, which was very fitting. Down by the Salley Gardens is a particular favourite of mine. In my humble opinion Gurney’s setting, to an original melody, knocks Britten’s folksong arrangement into the proverbial cocked hat. Suffice to say Roderick Williams’s caring performance fulfilled all my expectations. Praise of Ale, a delightful drinking song, made an excellent first half closer, sending us all off to the interval with a smile.

I was delighted to find songs by Michael Head on the programme for in my experience this composer’s songs are invariably pleasing and well crafted. Roderick Williams always engages expertly – and very naturally – with his audience and this was certainly the case with Money O! His infectious performance of this song drew spontaneous laughter and applause. Lean out of the window was exquisite. It’s a very lovely song and Williams invested it with rich, warm tone and a beautifully controlled line. The last song in the group of four was Tewkesbury Road, a setting of lines by John Masefield. The singing was exciting and Suzie Allen played the demanding, galloping accompaniment expertly. I believe that Head often used to give recitals of his own songs in which he’d accompany his own singing at the piano. I find it hard to believe that he would have performed this song by himself since playing the piano part would have surely left him breathless and therefore unable to sing!

I was glad too to have the chance to hear the new song cycle by Ian Venable again so soon after its première. As Roderick Williams said in a brief and witty introduction, it is a “rare and wonderful moment” to get a second opportunity to perform a new work. Once again the composer was present. The first of the four songs, ‘The Wind’ has a lovely melody, which benefited hugely from the singer’s control of line. Suzie Allen placed the rippling piano part perfectly. Long legato lines were again a feature in the next song, ‘Soft Rain’, though at the words “The savage toss of the pine boughs past music” (the line from which the cycle takes its name) the music becomes more impassioned. This atmospheric song exploited Williams’s top register to excellent effect. Once again Suzie Allen displayed a most sensitive touch at the piano. The first three songs are settings of poems by Ivor Gurney. For the fourth and last song Venables turned to another Gloucestershire poet, Leonard Clark, setting his poem In memoriam: Ivor Gurney. Obit. 26 xii 37. Venables makes this into a potent and moving elegy, which Williams sang with very fine feeling. The last five lines of the setting are set to powerful music to which these artists brought great commitment.

These are fine songs and the music, and the performance they received, merited the warm reception accorded by the audience. My only criticism is that the cycle would have benefited from the inclusion of at least one song in a more cheerful vein and/or one at a livelier tempo – all four are moderate to slow in speed. This was emphasised by the preceding Head group in which Roderick Williams had shrewdly enclosed two slower-paced songs within two lively ones. I very deliberately avoided looking at my review of the first performance of these songs until I’d typed the above comments so that my judgement was as independent as possible. I’m pleased - and a little relieved – to find that my view is pretty consistent.

Finally, Roderick Williams treated us to a selection of five of the Sussex folksongs that George Butterworth arranged between 1907 and 1909 – he actually collected some three hundred songs but only set eleven himself. These songs are included on a fine new Naxos disc by Roderick Williams, which is devoted to Butterworth’s songs (Naxos 8.572426). Three of the songs are on the theme of the gentleman who meets and “courts” a country maid. In two of these - Roving in the Dew and Seventeen Come Sunday – that involve two voices, the gentleman and the girl, Williams engaged in a delightful bit of ham acting, investing the girl’s lines with a broad rustic accent and the gentleman’s lines with the accent of a toff. Interestingly, though he does the same on the CD he’s a bit more restrained there and that’s surely right for repeated listening on a disc might pall whereas towards the end of a recital it was fine – and appreciated by the audience. Not everything was light hearted though. The True Lover’s Farewell is a gentle, melancholic song, a variant on The Turtle Dove, I think, and Williams did it most beautifully.

At the end both artists got the reception they richly deserved and many of the audience cast aside English reserve to give them a standing ovation in which I was only too happy to join. An encore was inevitable. We got one and it couldn’t have been more appropriate. Ivor Gurney, whose photograph hangs on a wall of this church, had featured twice in the programme, as composer and as poet. Here Roderick Williams combined both facets of Gurney’s art with his exquisitely poignant Severn Meadows. It was a most affecting end to the recital and I’m not ashamed to admit that my eyes prickled, especially when Williams sang with great sensitivity the final two lines:

Do not forget me quite,

O Severn Meadows

This was an outstanding recital in every way. The choice of music was discerning and enterprising for a start. The execution was superb. Roderick Williams displayed flawless vocal technique and conveyed marvellously the spirit of every song he sang. At the piano Suzie Allen was the ideal accompanist, ‘with’ her singer at every turn and offering some really felicitous playing. I don’t think there’s a finer exponent of English song currently before the public than Roderick Williams and this exceptional recital was a highlight of this year’s Three Choirs Festival.

John Quinn


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