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Voice by György Kurtág
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Roderick WILLIAMS (b.1965) Sacred Choral Works
Let Nothing Trouble You* [7:30]
O Guiding Night [7:59]
Christmas Bells [3:49]
And a Little Child Shall Lead Them [8:05]
Love Bade Me Welcome [4:32]
Children, Go Where I Send Thee [4:37]
Holy Father, Great Creator [4:29]
Quare fremuerunt gentes? [5:07]
O Saviour of the World [5:08]
O Adonai [8:24]
Mary Had a Baby [2:00]
La Trinité qui ne change jamais [3:13]
Ave verum corpus Re-imagined [4:55]
The Lord’s Prayer [2:57]
This is the Work of Christ [3:29]
Old Royal Naval College Trinity Laban Chapel Choir / Ralph Allwood
Jonathan Eyre (piano/*conductor))
rec. 2017, Chapel of St Peter and St Paul, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London
Texts & translations included SIGNUM CLASICSSIGCD517 [80:12]
Roderick Williams is one of the most sought-after baritones currently before the public. He’s in demand as a concert and operatic artist all over the world and this must mean that he has a very crowded schedule into which he has to fit not only rehearsals and performances but also the learning of music which is new to him. In addition to all his work as a singer Roderick Williams also manages to find the time to write music. How does he do it? I was interested to read his comment that he’d never heard some of the pieces included here because his schedule has prevented him from attending performances.
I’ve heard – and been impressed by - a few of his choral pieces before; these have been included in mixed recital discs by various choirs. However, to the best of my knowledge this is the first CD that has been devoted entirely to his music. The release is noteworthy also since it is the debut disc by the Old Royal Naval College Trinity Laban Chapel Choir. This choir is unique: we learn from the booklet that Trinity Laban is the only conservatoire in the world which supports a Collegiate Chapel Choir. Each week during term time the choir sings services in the chapel where the present recording was made. It comprises 27 singers (8/5/6/8). Since 2012 the Director of Music at the Old Royal Naval College has been Ralph Allwood, one of the UK’s most distinguished choral conductors. Bearing in mind his track record, not least with the Rodolfus Choir, I was expecting to hear excellent choral singing on this disc and I wasn’t disappointed.
There’s a wide range of music in this programme; Williams proves that he can write in a variety of styles. In fact, he says in the booklet that he believes his compositions may well be influenced stylistically by whatever music he happens to be singing at the time he writes a work of his own. All the pieces sound to be expertly imagined for voices. This shouldn’t surprise us: as a singer Roderick Williams is ideally placed to understand how voices work. Furthermore, he knows how choirs work because at the beginning of his career I believe that he sang with a number of crack chamber choirs, such as I Fagiolini. Another feature of the music is the effectiveness with which Williams responds in music to the texts he has chosen to set. Again, this is unsurprising: anyone who has experienced him singing will know how concerned he is, as a performer, for the words.
I’ve heard some of the music before. O Adonai is a setting of one of the Great ‘O’ Antiphons, used at the service of Vespers or Evensong in the week leading up to Christmas. It was commissioned by the Birmingham-based choir, Ex Cathedra, who have recorded it. Looking back at my review of their disc I see that the piece was written in 1998. It’s an arresting composition which uses spatial effects very excitingly – the sopranos, including a solo voice, should ideally be positioned in a gallery above the main choir. The music is quite stark and exudes an air of anxious expectancy. As I listened, I felt that the music expresses the act of reaching out into the darkness towards a distant light. It must be a very difficult piece to bring off but it sounds superb here.
Another piece with which I’m familiar is Ave verum corpus Re-imagined. This was commissioned by Suzi Digby and her ensemble ORA and it was through their superb recording that I first heard it (review). It’s a most imaginative and effective piece that wonderfully takes Byrd’s masterly motet and refracts the music through a 21st century prism. Ralph Allwood and his choir do it really well and there’s a fine tenor soloist in Mathew Norris. This piece won the Choral category in the 2016 British Composer Awards though, modestly, Roderick Williams does not mention this in his booklet notes. Until this disc reached me I was unaware that this Byrd-based piece isn’t the only occasion on which Williams has taken a piece of Tudor polyphony as his starting point. O Saviour of the World is a modern-day response to Salvator Mundi by Thomas Tallis. It’s an ingenious piece but, more than that, it’s deeply felt. The tone is quite troubled and the piece has urgency and a sense of apprehension to it.
There are other troubled pieces. One such is Quare fremuerunt gentes? Handel used these words, but in English, in the aria ‘Why do the nations?’ in Messiah. The piece was commissioned by Ralph Allwood and this choir for this recording and Williams says that it reflects the turbulent and often distressing times in which we live. The music features ever-busy, flickering writing for most of the choir against which individual groups of voices sing more legato lines. Allwood’s young singers display tremendous dexterity and energy in delivering the choral parts. Towards the end Handel’s aforementioned aria is quoted or, rather, is the starting point for a decidedly 21st century take on Handel’s music. Guess which leading baritone is on hand to sing this solo?
Worlds away from such a troubled piece are two arrangements of Spirituals. Mary Had a Baby is a vibrant setting that ranges widely through different keys. The end is very amusing – I won’t spoil the surprise. Even better is Children, Go Where I Send Thee. Here the melody switches from one section of the choir to another at blinding speed. The arrangement is full of energy and bounce, as is the performance. This is a super setting and sounds like great fun to sing – once you’ve mastered the difficulties.
Hymne is a Baudelaire setting which Williams wrote for the wedding of his brother-in-law. The writing features sensuous, very Gallic harmonies and sinuous vocal lines. We’re told that at the wedding the choir was formed of friends and relatives who performed it after just one rehearsal. How on earth they managed that feat I don’t know since the music seems far from easy. Also in French is La Trinité qui ne change jamais. Here, Williams tells us, “the sprung rhythms of Tippett meet with the harmonies of Duruflé.” The composer should know, of course, but I thought I detected one or two traces of Poulenc as well.
The setting of The Lord’s Prayer has an interesting background. Williams writes that as a student he acquired and was deeply impressed by a disc of Russian Orthodox Music by The Tallis Scholars; this, I imagine, will be CDGIM002. Struck particularly by a setting of The Lord’s Prayer by Rachmaninov, Williams set about writing a set of double choir verses and responses for Evensong in the image of Rachmaninov’s piece. The setting of The Lord’s Prayer here recorded is an excerpt. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, especially towards the end where a solo soprano and a solo tenor sing in unison. I should like to hear the complete composition from which this is taken.
I know that Roderick Williams has written music for the Anglican liturgy in jazz style. Love Bade Me Welcome is an anthem from his Jazz Matins. Can the words of George Herbert (1593-1633) work in a jazz idiom? Yes, they can on the evidence of this piece. The harmonies are definitely jazz-influenced but Williams doesn’t overplay his hand and the result is a very successful fusion of the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries. I love the gently jaunty ending
I’ve left till last the first piece on the programme. Sometimes when I get a disc to review there’s a track which, on the first playthrough, I have to repeat immediately. Let Nothing Trouble You is such a piece. It’s a setting of words by St Teresa of Avila and at the start the comforting, warm harmonies are entirely in keeping with the reassuring message of the words. Here the music is both lovely and tranquil. The piece achieves an urgent, ecstatic climax before the music relapses back to the gently glowing material with which the piece began. Besides beguiling, though occasionally surprising, harmonies the other great merit of the piece is the lovely melodic foundation. For this piece the choir is conducted by Jonathan Eyre and he shapes the piece most persuasively.
I haven’t mentioned every piece in the programme but I can assure readers that any unmentioned works are no less impressive than the ones on which I’ve commented. Roderick Williams is a fine composer, as this disc amply proves. He’s marvellously served by the Old Royal Naval College Trinity Laban Chapel Choir. Their singing is as accomplished and committed as you’d expect from a choir trained by Ralph Allwood. I hope very much that it won’t be long before we hear them again on disc. The programme gives several opportunities for soloists from within the choir: without exception all acquit themselves very well.
The technical side of the recording is in the expert hands of producer Adrian Peacock and engineer Mike Hatch so the sonic results are very pleasing indeed. The booklet includes very useful notes by Roderick Williams himself. My only slight disappointment with the documentation is that the dates of composition of the individual pieces aren’t given. I’ve not been able to discover whether any of these pieces have been published. I presume at least some have been but I hope any that are unpublished will soon be made available so that other choirs can take them up.
This disc shows another, equally distinguished side to one of the UK’s leading singers. It’s very well worth hearing.
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