Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, January 13 2016
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano)
Schubert: Der Atlas, Aus Heliopolis II, Ihr Bild, Der Wanderer an den Mond, Das Fischermädchen, Der Schiffer, Die Stadt, Der Wanderer, Am Meer, Auf dem Wasser zu singen, Der Doppelgänger, Auf der Donau, Die Taubenpost.
It doesn’t matter that much, but a different concert promoter might not have got away with what the RWCMD presented at this lunchtime recital by Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside. It was advertised on the college’s website as Schubert’s Schwanengesang and in the printed brochure as selections from it. What most punters understand by the work is number 957 in the Deutsch catalogue – including the exquisite Ständchen, or Serenade – consisting of settings of poems by Rellstab (seven), Heine (six) and a final add-on by Seidl. When the audience turned up, the programme described what it was about to hear as ‘Heine Expanded’, meaning that Mr Williams was to sing just the Heine settings, with other Schubert songs interpolated to make thirteen items in all, including that added Seidl item, Die Taubenpost. But no Ständchen, a setting of Rellstab and usually coming fourth in the list; but, as an encore, a conflation-cum-confection of the opening of Schubert’s song-cycle Die Schöne Müllerin and Girl from Ipanema. Moreover, the recital didn’t begin with the advertised Der Atlas, Mr Williams deciding engagingly to mix and match songs that seemed to chime together, or words to that effect. After the Austro-Brazilian tailpiece, we could have forgiven anything.
Did it matter? Well, we got the pictures, as they might say, though not the ones many might have expected. Other singers ring the changes, Andreas Schmidt having once prefaced the conventional series with five settings of Leitner and claiming the result as a proper swansong. Mmm. The problem with Schwanengesang is that it’s not really a song-cycle at all in the sense of the singer-hero inhabiting each of the items so that the accumulated effect might reflect something purpose-built and coherent. The Schwanengesang of D.957 is a group of late songs put together after the composer’s death by his publisher. It’s a swansong all right, but not the one Schubert would necessarily have uttered. So, given that, and with the knowledge that taking liberties is these days not uncommon in musical performance, the exercise was legitimate. Whether or not it worked to the audience’s satisfaction as it clearly did to singer’s and pianist’s is a matter of personal taste. (At least one pianist has recently decided that re-arranging the sequence of Debussy’s first book of Préludes improves them; but changing the order of contents is not the same as deciding to replace some with others.)
It’s amazing how many of yesteryear’s singers sound virtually uninflected in this repertory when compared with many of today’s interpreters, of whom Mr Williams is a surpassing example. For a start, he floats between high and low plains with ease as part of his skill set, never suggesting that the outer limits require a closer proximity, and while doing so the voice’s texture remains uncorrupted. There is also a flamboyance in his delivery, not only in the familiar Der Atlas (was that irony in the voice as our hero shouldered all the world’s agony?) but also in Heliopolis II, in which the poet confronts all the world’s elements and communes with the grand and noble, including cataracts. Water was a recurring theme in this particular collection and, though not mentioned in the predicated Der Wanderer an den Mond, it is the moon that moves the sea. Cut to the charm of Das Fischermädchen; or the languor of Der Schiffer, adrift on moonlit waters, his mind idly wandering; or to the wanderer unpredicated, Der Wanderer, lost in the landscape as the sea roars. The image that emerged was one of fluidity and flow reflecting the motion and notion of wanderlust, a familiar feature in Schubert. It even incorporated the ghostly shimmer of Der Doppelgänger that stops the wanderer in his tracks. So yes, there was little to impede progress in this set.
In all his enactments, Mr Williams reminded us that the composer turned the sow’s ears of the insubstantial into the silk purses of miniatures imbued with real feeling. It was neatly done, underpinned in this case by Iain Burnside’s deceptively studious manner at the keyboard. The piano parts in Schubert Lieder are not equivalent but ultra-significant. Some of them have been played by Britons more perkily but not often with such refinement and quiet assertion.
Header photo of Roderick Williams: Ingppen and Williams