A serious birdwatcher would take exception to being called a twitcher. Whereas the former is happy to wait patiently and passively for avian visitors to visit their locale, twitchers chase around the globe in obsessive pursuit of rare aerial sightings that they can add, competitively, to their species lists. The very mention of an exotic avian alert can send them into paroxysms. This recital may have been titled ‘A Twitcher’s Delight’, but Roderick Williams and Andrew West’s charming celebration of birds and the natural world smoothed rather than ruffled feathers at Milton Court Concert Hall.
At the centre of the programme were two song-cycles setting texts by the late-nineteenth-century French author Jules Renard – specifically prose-poem animal vignettes selected from Renard’s Histoires Naturelles (1894). Renard’s penetrating realism and acute observation are perfectly complemented by Maurice Ravel in own Histoire Naturelles (1906), the five songs of which underline the textual images with magical clarity and artlessness. Williams, with his characteristically relaxed demeanour and engaging smile, was the ideal teller of these natural tales, intuitively judging the droll detachment and affectionate humour – a humour which somehow seems very ‘English’. And, both he and pianist Andrew West were brilliantly responsive to the flexibility of Renard’s phrases, with their alternation of short and complex sentence structures, and consequent shifts of tone, tempo and mood.
The vacuous self-regard of the peacock was sharply captured in ‘Le paon’, elegance slipping deliciously into epigram at the close – “Il relève sa robe à queue toute lourde des yeux qui n’ont pu se detacher d’elle” (He lifts his train, heavy with eyes that have been unable to detach themselves.) – as Williams lightened his voice, evoking a wry raising of an eyebrow at the solemn exaggeration. West delicately conjured the fragile flickering of the cricket in the still night air at the start of ‘Le grillon’, and Williams’ idiomatic French and smooth lyricism enhanced the harmonic consonance of the closing image of silence and moonlight. Above graceful arpeggios, the vocal line had a lovely fluency in ‘Le cygne’ (The swan), conveying the Saint-Säens-like poise of the melody which evokes conventional images of the swan’s beauty and grace. But, Renard punctures the artifice with startling brusqueness, “Mais qu’est-ce que je dis?”, and Williams’ dry recitative heightened the bathos: the worm-guzzling swan is getting as fat as a goose (“Il engraisse comme une oie.”). ‘Le martin-pêcheur’ (The kingfisher) was rich with shifting sonorities and gentle textures, while the onomatopoeic immediacy of the accompaniment and the responsiveness of Williams’ phrasing made the portrait of the ‘hunchback of the barnyard’, the guinea fowl (‘La pintade’), vivid and dramatic.
Ryan Wigglesworth new cycle, Vignettes de Jules Renard, takes up where Ravel left off, presenting three further vignettes of equally acute musical observation and spontaneity. Who could not ‘see’ the hen (‘La Poule’) pecking and pacing to the piano’s ‘tip-tap’, frolicking and wallowing, then pausing to drink “par petits coups” (in little sips), the vocal line now more lyrical and leisurely? Williams’ baritone rose easily into a tenorial register, a timbre which was just right for the image of the hen cocking her ear, first this way then that, then shrank to a whisper as the hen stepped silently away. ‘Le Crapaud’ (The Toad) swayed pendulously, in fits and starts, and rumbled ominously, building to the climactic exclamation, “Dieu! que tu es laid!” (My God! You are ugly!). The grasshopper (La Sauterelle) hopped and skipped to staccato clashes, as with surprising fierceness Williams described the insect’s fearless and furious pursuits, before inviting us into his intimacy and disclosing the grasshopper’s vice: he chews tobacco.
The programme was not just a conversation with the birds, but also a conversation between French and British song. Gabriel Fauré Mirages showcased the baritone’s ability to subtly and naturally heighten a text in ways which are deeply communicative. The direct address to the swan at the close of ‘Cygne sur l’eau’ had a wonderfully focused intensity, while the evenness of the piano accompaniment in ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, and Williams’ lyricism, captured the dreamy seductiveness of the water which tempts the morose poet-speaker to slip into its embrace, promising an “aube opportune” (opportune dawn). The subtle shadings and inflections of ‘Jardin nocturne’ were beautifully expressive while ‘Danseuse’ spun with delicacy and restraint.
According to Judith Weir, the conversations between humans and birds that comprise her 2003 cycle The Voice of Desire reveal the sophisticated vision of the natural world: ‘The nightingale lives in a darker emotional world than we can imagine; the blue cuckoo knows that the wars we blunder into will bring destruction; the thrush sings joyfully whilst we are mentally blank; the dove has died rather than face emotional suffocation from its adoring owner.’ Williams communicated the persuasive lyrical vein of these settings of Bridges, Hardy, Keats and an African huntsman’s song while West’s accompaniments hinted at the profundities that remain obscure to human minds. Passion poured strongly through ‘The Voice of Desire’, the piano a fountain of colour and movement, the vocal line arcing up and down, rising to peaks of melismatic intensity. Williams pointed the text of ‘White Eggs in the Bush, the birds’ warnings when war arrives, “Kill thirty, kill thirty!”, culminating in a declamatory denunciation, “The world is spoiled, the world is spoiled!”, that felt, at this moment in time, all too true. The piano sketched the sharp features of the sparse midwinter landscape in ‘Written on Terrestial Things’ and intimated the ecstatic carolings of Hardy’s darkling thrush, while Williams’ high, fervent melody expressed the poet-speaker’s desolate sense of the failure of his own poetic perception.
The final part of the recital comprised a sequence of twentieth-century British song, and found Williams at his most easeful and engaging, seeming to make eye contact with, and sing to, each individual audience member. Ivor Gurney’s ‘Spring’ had a lovely lightness in its step, the piano’s circling flourishes crystal clear and Williams’ baritone skipping through the cuckoo’s cry with gentle humour. ‘The Joy of Earth’ by Ina Boyle was generous and free, and E.J. Moeran’s ‘When smoke stood up from Ludlow’ had a lovely ebb-and-flow as the confident young poet-speaker ploughed the field with his team but, after expanding with anger at the blackbird’s knowing warning of man’s mortality, darkened into shameful shadows when the words of the slain bird are taken up by the man’s own soul. Britten’s ‘Proud Songsters’ was ebulliently clamorous, but the directness of Williams’ vocal line ensured that we felt the poignancy of the poet-speaker’s observations. Both Britten’s arrangement of ‘The Ash Grove’ and Finzi’s Hardy setting, ‘Before and After Summer’ had a lovely bloom, and the recital closed with the infectious energy of Adrian Williams’ ‘Red Kite Flying’, the piano’s moto perpetuo racing and the vocal line imitating the soaring flight of the red kite over the Radnorshire hills.
The duo’s encore was Howell’s King David, in which a nightingale’s song of grief soothes the sadness of the King. In nature, we find solace.
Roderick Williams (baritone), Andrew West (piano)
Fauré – Mirages; Weir – The Voice of Desire; Ravel – Histoire Naturelles; Wigglesworth – Vignettes de Jules Renard (world premiere); Gurney – ‘Spring’ from Five Elizabethan Songs, ‘Walking Song’; Boyle – ‘The Joy of Earth’; Moeran – ‘When smoke stood up from Ludlow’ from Ludlow Town; Britten – ‘Proud Songsters’ from Winter Words; ‘The Ash Grove’ (arr. Britten); Finzi – ‘Before and After Summer’; Williams – ‘Red Kite Flying’.
Milton Court Concert Hall, London; Tuesday 8th March 2022.
ABOVE: Roddy Williams (c) Benjamin Ealovega