Roderick Williams and Ian Burnside have created a revealing recital pairing the songs of Gerald Finzi and Franz Schubert. Both composers’ lives were shaped by illness and loss, and their chosen texts often explore the fragility of existence.
Finzi had a special relationship with the poetry of Thomas Hardy, and the opening song ‘Childhood among ferns’ – from his cycle Before and after Summer – set the tone of a powerfully moving nostalgia, phrased expressively and with lyrical beauty by Williams. The piano accompaniment conveyed the delicate drops of rain falling on the ferns which sheltered the youthful poet. Burnside’s contribution was no less thoughtful than Williams’s, and the apotheosis, as the sun burst through with a glorious key change, was thrilling. Schubert’s ‘Im Haine’ followed, Franz von Bruchmann’s verses echoed the restorative and peaceful imagery of rays of sunlight falling though fir trees in alliterative strophic lines. The monumental and portentous ’Der Wanderer’ was a highlight of the first half of the programme, it resonated with the opening Finzi song as it emphasised human isolation against a natural landscape. Williams’s expressive and vocal range here verged on the operatic, balanced by nuanced introspection. ‘Der Einsame’ and Finzi’s ‘Amabel’ lightened the mood, conveying contented solitude and wry humour as the subject turned to love. Many sentiments were explored including flirtation and evening melancholy and finally in this section of the recital ‘Die Liebe hat gelogen’, a shattering testament to the devastation of betrayed love. Williams’s slow repeat with reduced dynamics communicated heart wrenching sincerity.
Finzi’s ‘Channel Firing’ was composed in wartime, in 1940, mirroring the date of Hardy’s poem written in 1914. It is one of Finzi’s greatest achievements in song, the symbiosis of music and poetry is complete. Williams and Burnside described the surreal conversation between God and the skeletons of the dead with the lightest of touches and moments of humour and drama. Schubert’s ‘Totengräbers Heimweh’ consolidated the feeling of dread with thundering abandon.
The second half was given over to a complete performance of Finzi’s cycle Earth and Air and Rain, a collection of Hardy settings which evoke moods inspired by nature and the cosmos. Time and the afterlife dominate, phantoms and bittersweet regret. The enigmatic ‘Waiting both’ and ‘The clock of the Years’ were imbued with Williams’s masterful gift for story telling: the narrative always compelling. ‘To Lisbie Brown’ and ‘Proud Songsters’ were both full of character and tremendous delicacy. One of our greatest exponents, Williams lives and breathes song, and Burnside made the most sensitive of musical partners.
The first encore was Finzi’s ‘Who is Sylvia’ and the subsequent encores were Williams’s arrangements of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ firstly in the style of Schubert – ‘The Girl from Bad Nordheim’ – and then Benjamin Britten – ‘The Girl from Thorpeness’. The packed audience whooped with delight.