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Birdsong
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
An die Nachtigall, Op 46 No 4 [3:18]
Mädchenlied, Op 107 No 5 [1:31]
Das Mädchen, Op 95 No 1 [2:22]
Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Liebst du um Schönheit, Op 12 No 2 [2:06]
Johannes BRAHMS
Das Mädchen spricht, Op 107 No 3 [1:25]
Salamander, Op 107 No 1 [2:20]
Nachtigall, Op 97 No 1 [2:20]
Sally BEAMISH (b 1956)
Four Songs from Hafez (2007) [15:53]
Johannes BRAHMS
Vergebliches Ständchen, Op 84 No 4 [1:45]
Sapphische Ode, Op 94 No 2 [2:35]
Von ewiger Liebe, Op 43 No 1 [0:55]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Frauenliebe und -leben, Op 42 [20:46]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Andrew West (piano)
rec. 30 September-1 October 2020, St Mary’s Church, Pyrton, UK
Texts & English translations included
SOMM RECORDNGS SOMMCD0633 [59:21]

Yes, you have read the header correctly. This recital, which includes Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben and other songs usually associated with the female voice, is given by a baritone. Some explanation is in order.

Back in the darkest days of the UK’s cultural lockdown in 2020, London’s Wigmore Hall bravely poked its head over the parapet and staged a series of lunchtime recitals. Though no audiences could be present, the concerts were broadcast live by BBC Radio 3 and they came as manna in the desert. One such recital was given on 12 June 2020 by Roderick Williams, accompanied then by Joseph Middleton. Under the title ‘Woman’s Hour’, Williams offered many of the songs that are included on this disc. To say that I was intrigued by the prospect of hearing these songs, especially the Robert Schumann cycle, performed by a male singer would be a massive understatement. I found the broadcast enthralling.

On that occasion, Roderick Williams gave us Brahms’ Sapphische Ode as an encore. Introducing the song, he told a little story, which he repeats in the booklet. A long time ago, he submitted a programme for a Lieder competition and he included that song by Brahms, which had been suggested to him by one of his first singing teachers. The choice was declined because it was “a woman’s song”. We’ve come a long way since then and it’s not uncommon to hear female singers essay repertoire such as the great Schubert song cycles which were once the exclusive preserve of their male counterparts. However, leaving aside the efforts of countertenors, it’s largely been one-way traffic. Admittedly, Jonas Kaufmann has performed Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder and Williams himself has recorded Elgar’s Sea Pictures but in general male singers seem to have tended not to venture into the traditional female repertoire. In a fascinating essay accompanying this CD, Williams implies that this trend may be self-perpetuating, commenting that on his (pre-pandemic) visits to music conservatoires he found that singers seemed to stick with repertoire traditionally associated with their own gender.

In his essay, Roderick Williams poses a number of questions that, very fairly, challenge the traditional binary gender bias (my phraseology) of much of the song repertoire. In particular, as he says, though the songs of Frauenliebe und -leben may voice the thoughts of a woman, the poems were written by a man (Adelbert von Chamisso) and set to music by another man. Furthermore, I believe I’m right in saying that one of the earliest interpreters of the cycle was the German baritone Julius Stockhausen (1826-1906). I think that in his essay Roderick Williams poses some very reasonable challenges to traditional views. Those who read his thoughts will form their own opinions. The question which a review such as this must attempt to answer is, how successful is Williams in performing this repertoire?

Perhaps I should first address Frauenliebe und -leben. I’ve very deliberately not made comparisons with recordings by female singers since this performance is, at least for now, sui generis. However, just a couple of observations may be relevant. I’d listened recently to the recording by Juliane Banse and Graham Johnson (Hyperion). It’s noticeable that their account of ‘Seit ich ihn gesehen’ is markedly slower than the pace adopted by Williams and West. Richard Stokes reminds us in his notes that Schumann’s marking is larghetto. I think the Williams performance is much closer to that speed and I think they get it just right; by contrast, Banse and Johnson seem too reverent – or perhaps too predictive of the way the cycle will end? When I first listened to Williams’ account of ‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’ I missed the sense of a young girl’s eagerness that I remembered from Banse – and, indeed, from other singers. Then I read Richard Stokes’ reminder that this “is not the exultant love song that we hear all too often in recitals”. He points out that at this juncture there’s no indication that the man has even noticed the girl. So, the sense of rapture coupled with a degree of uncertainty that we hear in Williams’ performance is not at all inappropriate.

In ‘Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben’ I particularly admired the expressiveness that Roderick Williams brings to the second stanza. He conveys the contentment of ‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’ really well – and the ardour of the fourth stanza. ‘Süsser Freund, du blickest’ is a special challenge for a man: how does one sing a song in which the wife tells her husband that she’s pregnant with his child without sounding mawkishly sentimental? Williams brings it off, not least because his velvet tone is so suitable for the gentle rapture of the music. His account of ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’ is arresting. The bitter anguish of the opening is superbly put over, yet the singing is perfectly controlled, so the effect is not overdone. He brings a sense of numbing loss to the second stanza, and the final lines of the poem are properly desolate. In this song Williams makes every word tell. But as Andrew West plays the postlude, taking us back to where we started, surely Schumann is reminding us that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?

I made an off-air recording of the aforementioned Wigmore Hall broadcast. However, I’ve very deliberately refrained from making any comparisons because it would be quite wrong to compare a live performance, caught on the wing, with a studio recording. That said, one thing that I do recall vividly from the live performance was the care and imagination with which Roderick Williams enunciated the text of Frauenliebe und -leben. That’s just as true of this studio recording. Indeed, I’ve heard many live and recorded performance of Schumann’s great cycle and I can’t readily recall one in which the words – and the meaning behind them – have been so expressively enunciated. And I should stress that this care over the words is never at the expense of the musical line; nor is the enunciation in any way studied (as the live performance demonstrated). It says a lot, I think, that despite his vast experience of singing opera and Lieder, Williams has gone to the trouble of employing a German language coach – the same one, I think, who worked with him on his Chandos recordings of the Schubert song cycles. That speaks to this singer’s determination that the words must always count. All lovers of Lieder will have their favourite performance(s) of Frauenliebe und -leben featuring the female voice but I do urge you to hear this wonderful and perceptive performance, which, I’m sure, will make you think afresh about Schumann’s inspired songs.

That care for the words to which I referred is evident in all the other performances. I’m so pleased that Roderick Williams has included Clara Schumann’s setting of Liebst du um Schönheit. Of course, Mahler’s setting of Rückert’s poem is particularly familiar – and it’s far from unknown for a man to sing Mahler’s song – but Clara’s setting is very good indeed.

The Brahms groups include Sapphische Ode. I remember Roderick Williams saying at Wigmore Hall that it was this song that “kicked off this whole discussion for me”. I don’t know if, all those years ago, he challenged the decision to disallow the song from his competition programme; probably not. Had he challenged the view that this was “a woman’s song”, I wonder what answer he would have received. The true answer would have been “because it’s always been done that way”, which, of course, is no answer at all. If one reads the text, I don’t think there’s anything in it that makes it gender specific. Williams’ sensitive performance of Brahms’ long, seamless vocal lines is treasurable. He captures the bittersweet nature of what Richard Stokes calls the “quiet longing” of words and music. This performance demonstrates that, as he put it at Wigmore Hall, this song “belongs to anybody, to everybody”.

All the other Brahms songs are just as successful. An die Nachtigall benefits from his even, warm tone. The singing is ideally expressive while Andrew West weights the piano part in an ideal fashion. In Mädchenlied, as elsewhere in the programme, Williams seems unerringly to discern which words should receive subtle emphasis to bring out the meaning in the song in question. Das Mädchen spricht may be a setting of a poem voiced by a girl, but if justification were needed for its inclusion Richard Stokes provides it by pointing out that its first interpreter was a tenor. When I heard Nachtigall I was captivated by both the music and the performance of the gently melancholic second half of the song. Richard Stokes tells us that Brahms; marking for Vergebliches Ständchen translates as “with animation and good humour”; that’s exactly how Williams and West put it across. Their final Brahms offering is Von ewiger Liebe. This is a fine song and the present performance shows its stature, not least in the impassioned way in which both artists deliver the central section of the song.

In between two of the Brahms groups we hear Sally Beamish’s Four Songs from Hafez. I don’t know if these songs have been recorded before – I couldn’t immediately trace a recording but SOMM don’t claim this as a recorded premiere - but they were new to me. They are settings of verses by the Persian Sufi poet Hafez (1315-1390). Three of the songs are about birds – Nightingale, Peacock and the mythical Hoopoe (the third song is entitled ‘Fish’) – and what a good idea it was to place the songs immediately after Brahms’ Nachtigall, since Sally Beamish’s first song concerns the same bird. The texts are set in an English translation by Jila Peacock and, fittingly, the lovely image on the cover of SOMM’s booklet is also the work of Ms Peacock.

In ‘Nightingale’ the piano part brilliantly suggests the bird’s song almost without interruption. Against this wonderfully decorative instrumental part the vocal lines are very fine indeed and most expressive. This is a super song. ‘Peacock’ has such a virtuoso piano part that the pianist almost takes centre stage. The instrument plays cascading figures almost from start to finish; it’s a most inventive and colourful accompaniment to the expressive vocal part. Andrew West’s playing is superb. ‘Hoopoe’ is a mythical bird which was said to be the messenger between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. This is the longest of the songs and the music brilliantly conveys Solomon’s ardour. This is a very fine set of songs and it’s hard to imagine that they could receive better advocacy than that which Roderick Williams and Andrew West provide.

This disc has challenged me – in a good way. As an example, previously I’ve not been wholly convinced by Roderick Williams’ recording of Sea Pictures. I think I need to revisit that recording – and firmly put from my mind the voices of Janet Baker and Sarah Connolly. If you are prepared to listen to, say, Brigitte Fassbender or Joyce DiDonato in Winterreise – and I’d argue that you should, in order to hear the insights of these great singers – then I’d suggest you should be just as prepared to hear Roderick Williams in Frauenliebe und -leben and, of course, in the rest of his programme. I should hasten to assure readers that, in choosing to perform songs, many of which might be more associated with women, I don’t believe for one moment that Roderick Williams is being ‘woke’. This is a thoughtful project, which has been carefully considered and superbly executed. If it’s thought to be provocative then I’d say that it’s provocative in an entirely positive way. The disc is very rewarding per se, but if it also succeeds in breaking down some artistic barriers by challenging preconceptions, then so much the better. Perhaps inevitably, given the nature of the project, I’ve commented in detail on the singing. I should make it clear that throughout the programme Andrew West’s pianism is of the highest possible order.

As ever, SOMM’s production values are high. The recorded sound, engineered by Oscar Torres, is excellent and balances singer and piano very well. The booklet contains valuable essays by Roderick Williams and Richard Stokes while Sally Beamish contributes a useful note about her own songs. Texts and translations are provided and – praise be! – they’re printed in a good-sized, clear font.

This is a disc that should provide stimulating listening for all lovers of art song.

John Quinn



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