Roderick Williams, Wigmore Hall

Williams opened with an intimate presentation of six songs from Hugo
Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch, conveying both the simplicity
and immediacy of the emotions expressed in these miniature outpourings of love.
‘Gesegnet sei, durch den die Welt entstund’ (‘Blessed be he,
who created the world’) displayed Williams’ assurance and control,
as he diminished from a striking fortimisso to a delicate
pianissimo, as the poet-speaker blesses the one who ‘made beauty
and your face’ in a hushed whisper of awe and devotion. Rhythmic energy
characterises ‘Schon streckt’ich aus im Bett’
(‘I’d already stretched my tired limbs’), and Deutsch’s
flexible playing underlined the exuberance of the poet who, dreaming of his
love, leaps from his bed to roam the streets serenading his beloved.
Williams’s gentle tone conveyed the heartfelt sensuality here, but was
aptly replaced by a more declamatory style in ‘Geselle, wollin wir uns in
Kutten h¸llen’ (‘Comrade, shall we disguise ourselves in
cowls’), and by an earnest directness, supported by Deutsch’s
rippling spread chords, in ‘Und willst du deinen Liebsten sterben
sehen’ (‘And if you would see your lover die’). The vision of
his lover’s golden hair leaves the poet almost speechless (‘the
hair is beautiful, beautiful she that wears it!/ Golden threads, silken threads
without number —’), and Willams achieved a tremulous sense of
wonder and incredulity, floating the phrase ‘Schˆn Sind die Haare’
(‘the hair is beautiful’) with superb grace, while Deutsch more
than matched this expressivity in the harmonically rich postlude.

The upper register of Williams’ voice is secure and focused, but the
lower register is no less interesting, and in ‘Sterb ‘ich, so h¸llt
in Blumen meine Glieder’ (‘If I should die, then shroud my limbs in
flowers’) he strove for a veiled quality which complemented the low
accompanying pedal, before rising to a transcendent, ethereal conclusion,
‘Ich sterbe lieblich, sterb’ ich deinetwegen’ (I’ll die
happy if I die for your sake’). Deutsch launched into the final song,
‘Ein St‰ndchen Euch zu bringen kam ich her’ (‘I have come
here to sing a serenade’), with an energetic staccato and the performers
romped through to the insouciant close. Above all, it was the ease with which
Williams moved between moods, registers and timbres which was most

Erich Wolfgang Korngold is best known for his film scores, and perhaps for
the opera Die tote Stadt, but interest in his music has grown in
recent years (with recordings made of the Violin Concerto, Symphony and string
quartets), and the Vier Lieder des Abschieds Op.14 (4 Songs of
Farewell) certainly deserve to be heard more often. Composed in 1919, when
Korngold was 23-years-old, they present different types of farewell, and employ
a Straussian Romantic idiom enriched by increasingly complex chromaticism, wide
vocal intervals, and other effects such as glissandi; indeed, the
precision of the composer’s instructions is almost overwhelming, only 2
of the 200 bars being free of detailed performance markings.

‘Sterbelied’, a translation of Christina Rossetti’s famous
sonnet, ‘Remember’, enabled Williams once again to demonstrate the
flexibility of his voice, as he moved effortlessly between registers in the
line, ‘Und wenn du willst, vergifl’ (‘and, if you will,
forget’), and effectively employed a head voice towards the wistful
close. Deutsch captured the emotional weight of ‘Dies eine kann mein
Sehnen nimmer fassen’ (‘This one thing my longer can never
grasp’), and the performers shaped the song superbly, climaxing with the
final frightening image of the poet’s fate — ‘the boundless
depths of its darkness’. Ernst Lothar provided the text for the final two
songs, ‘Gefaflter Abshied’ (‘Resigned farewell’) and
‘Mond, so gehst du wieder auf’ (‘Moon, thus you rise once
more’) where Williams presented an array of colours to convey the
fierceness of the poet’s painful grief: ‘Das Herz, das sich
muflt’ trennen,/ Wird ohne Ende brennen’ (‘the heart that has
suffered separation/ will burn eternally’).

After such intensity, four songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben
offered some lightness and humour, with Deutsch enjoying the
mischievous rhythmic displacements and raucous postlude of ‘Um schlimme
Kinder artig zu machen’ (‘How to make naughty children
behave’). In these songs, Williams was able to demonstrate his
considerable skill at characterisation, here using his face and body most
expressively to complement the jaunty rhythms that convey the arrival of the
gentleman on horseback. The beauty of his upper register was again displayed in
‘Ich ging mit Lust’ (‘I walked joyfully’), and a
dream-like quality was achieved in ‘Erinnerung’
(‘Recollection’) as the poet speaks of ‘The lips that dream
of your ardent kisses’. In ‘Aus! Aus!’ (‘Out!
Out!’), a young soldier reassures his lover that, although he is soon to
march off to war, their love is far from over; she doubts him, and laments that
she will enter a convent. Williams and Deutsch captured the irony in
Mahler’s setting — which plays on the pun that ‘aus’
can mean both ‘out of town’ and ‘finished’ — the
repeating refrain leaving us in no doubt of the young man’s immaturity
and frivolousness.

After the interval we returned to the first half of the nineteenth-century,
with Schumann’s 12 Kerner Lieder Op.35. There is an
extraordinary range in both texts and musical style in these settings, perhaps
indicative of the swings of mood that Schumann suffered throughout his life,
but Williams and Deutsch shaped them into a coherent whole, carefully judging
the passage between songs, emphasising both contrast and continuity. After the
exhilaration of ‘Lust der Sturmnacht’, the performers established a
mood of still solemnity in ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud!’ (‘Die,
love and joy!’): Deutsch’s continuous, right-hand melody evoked a
spiritual calm and was matched by Williams’ smooth lyricism. The young
girl’s prayer to the Virgin Mary, ‘O Virgin pure!/ Let me be/ yours
alone’, was delivered without vibrato, indication once again of the
baritone’s technical control. A ghostly aura was created in ‘Auf
das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes’ (‘To the wine glass of a
departed friend’), the unison phrases shared by piano and voice perfectly
attuned and shaped. Williams suggested the contemplative depths of the
poet-speaker’s realisation that friendship is eternal, an understanding
which brought fresh movement and light into the closing stanzas of the song.
‘Wanderung’ (‘Wandering’) followed swiftly on,
Deutsch’s rocking triplet rhythms conveying the traveller’s
light-hearted spirit and springing step.

The final five songs are more ruminative and questioning. The piano’s
role in creating ‘meaning’ was superbly demonstrated by Deutsch at
the close of ‘Stille Liebe’ (‘Silent love’), where his
delicately ornamented cadence wonderfully enhanced the mood of quiet regret.
Williams’ breath control was splendid in ‘Stille Tr‰nen’
(‘Silent tears’), where he made much of the chromatic rise which
presents the image of a man who ‘will often weep out his sorrows’.
We closed on a desolate note, the spare accompaniment of ‘Alte
Laute’ (‘Sounds from the past’) reminding us of the emptiness
of the present, as the poet-speaker laments that all joys have now passed, and
‘only an angel shall wake me’ (‘Weckt mich ein Engel
nur’). Williams’ composure and control were outstanding as, slower
and softer, the rather unemotive melody of the preceding song, ‘Wer macht
dich so krank?’ (‘Who made you so ill?’) returned, drawing
the cycle to a bleak conclusion.

The exuberant applause was much deserved for one cannot imagine these songs
being better sung. Williams’ verbal clarity was excellent throughout; he
genuinely understood the texts and conveyed their rich and diverse meanings
with thoughtfulness and sincerity.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Roderick Williams [Photo courtesy of Ingpen & William]
product_title=Roderick Williams, Wigmore Hall
product_by=Roderick Williams, baritone; Helmut Deutsch, piano. Wigmore Hall, London,
Friday, 25 February 2011.
product_id=Above: Roderick Williams [Photo courtesy of Ingpen & William]