From the moment Roderick Williams came on stage he captivated us with his engaging smile, his eye contact so it seemed with every audience member, and his glorious warm baritone voice that filled the hall effortlessly. I must confess that twentieth century ‘English song’ is a far from favourite genre of mine, perhaps I’ve heard too many tasteful ‘gentlemanly’ performances. But his imaginative response to this apparently restricted emotional world converted me to their cause, aided and abetted by Andrew West’s skilful accompanying; hypnotic in Butterworth’s On the Idle Hill of Summer, busy but never overwhelming in Vaughan Williams’ The Water Mill.
They gave the premiere of Robert Saxton’s song cycle Time and the Seasons six months ago in Oxford where it received an enthusiastic review from The Times music critic. Whilst being clearly music of our time it presents no difficulties for the open-minded listener. Saxton’s settings of his own texts are very illustrative and varied, catching the bleakness of winter, the warmth of spring and so on in a very distinctive way. The performers responded acutely to this colourful music: the monotonous bleakness of winter, the lightness of spring and the final song which moves from darkness to joy on ‘you laugh’.
The Britten folk-song arrangements gave Roderick Williams a chance to demonstrate those acting skills we’re familiar with from his opera appearances, Andrew West accompanying characterfully.
Unlike the Saxton cycle, Gerald Finzi’s Before and after Summer has no narrative structure, it is just a collection of songs gathered together with texts by Thomas Hardy, lasting over half an hour. Such was the conviction of the performance that the experience was constantly gripping, whether in the drama of Channel Firing, the contrasting moods within songs as in The Self-unseeing or the bleakness of He Abjures Love. No printed texts were supplied but the clarity of Williams’ diction and his acute response to the words rendered them unnecessary.
A memorable event that raised the bar for future song recitals.