Roderick Williams & Helmut Deutsch at Wigmore Hall

Italienisches Liederbuch [selection: Gesegnet sei, durch den die Welt entstand; Schon streckt’ ich aus im Bett; Geselle, wollen wir uns in Kutten hüllen; Und willst du deinen Liebsten sterben sehen; Sterb’ich, so hüllt in Blumen meine Glieder; Ein Ständchen euch zu bringen kam ich her]
Vier Lieder des Abschieds Op.14
Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit [selection: Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen; Erinnerung; Ich ging mit Lust; Aus!Aus!]
Kerner Lieder, Op.35

Roderick William (baritone) & Helmut Deutsch (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 25 February, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Roderick Williams, has until now been best known for his operatic roles and his performances of British song. Now he has turned to the Romantic Lieder repertoire. He and Helmut Deutsch brought to London a recital programme which they had offered in Scotland a few days before.

They began with Wolf. Six songs from “Italienisches Liederbuch” were programmed, all of them miniatures. Williams could have made his mark with colourful effects, artificial, knowing treatment of the text and exaggerated characterisation. In fact his interpretations were restrained. There were no funny voices for the fraudulent monk or the mother whom he tries to hoodwink in ‘Geselle, wollen wir uns Kutten hüllen’. Only in ‘Ein Ständchen euch zu bringen’ did the balance between words and music tilt towards the former.Inexperienced though Williams may be in Lieder there was no denying the clarity of his German enunciation: the mercurial wit of ‘Schon streckt’ ich aus im Bett’ registered fully. By contrast, ‘Und willst deinen Liebsten sterben sehen’ is a piece of steamy eroticism. The poet drools over the beauty of his partner’s flowing hair. Some beautifully rounded tone on those notes in the section marked sehr ruhig, especially the repeated word “schön”, combined gorgeously with the lush spread chords in the accompaniment to produce a sensual effect. The instruction for a constant pianissimo in ‘Sterb’sich, so hüllt in Blumen’ was followed with admirable poise; if I prefer the accompaniment to be equally soft, Helmut Deutsch’s rather more prominent playing of the inner part was convincing.

The vocal style of Korngold is in total contrast to Wolf’s epigrammatic word-setting. The long stretched lines of his writing in these songs of farewell represented a staunch test for the baritone, an opportunity to display his soft head-notes, the majority of which were admirably secure. The recent upsurge of interest in Korngold’s music, with performances and recordings of previously neglected pieces, has permitted an informed assessment of his standing as a composer beyond his film scores. I do detect a danger of over-estimating individual works. The first two of these songs seemed to be post-Romantic chromaticism pushed to extremes without real substance in the word setting.

Not until ‘Mond, so gehst du wieder auf’ did the music really inform the poetry (Ernst Lothar). The poet, obsessed by the pain of separation, is inconsolable and Korngold’s writing for the voice gives the singer the opportunity for sustained intensity. The high notes, here sounding a touch precarious, were a natural expression of inward suffering. The accompaniment, which earlier in the cycle had seemed unconnected to the voice, here tops and tails the song expressively: its lilting rhythm set the scene of nocturnal serenity and powerful octaves herald the climax.The same author’s ‘Gefasster Abschied’ has a folksong shape to express its optimistic promise of later reunion, the tonal opening stanzas leading to a disturbed declamatory passage before easing back to tonality and ending radiantly with a cluster of high pianissimo notes for the voice. The singer’s advocacy of this music brought its greatest rewards in these two songs.

The Mahler group contrasted crude rusticity with nostalgic yearning. Deutsch was brilliant as the ham-fisted pianist in the misplaced accents of ‘Um schlimme Kinder’. There was a not inappropriate hint of being camp from Williams here and in ‘Aus!Aus!’. Both artists found a bewitching mood for ‘Ich ging mit Lust’. The singer’s gentle story-telling was endearing, even if he produced one or two hooty head notes. If Richard Leander’s ‘Erinnerung’ does not fit well with its “des Knaben Wunderhorn” companions it was approached with whole-hearted commitment by singer and pianist. Williams brought to it pliable phrasing and a whispered ending.

The one substantial item in the programme, Schumann’s “Kerner Lieder”, occupied the second half of an evening which aimed to show the continuity of German Art-Song over eighty years. This Liederreihesotto voce singing as the gazes at the sacred object, the gravitas of the low tessitura in the third stanza, all supported by the pianist’s handling of the hymn-like unison. The changed atmosphere when he drains the chalice in quasi-religious fervour was equally impressive: the moving accompaniment giving way to a static dream-sequence in the magic of midnight, the ending nobly delivered.

Williams was less convincing in the lusty, outdoor songs. The voice tended to be covered by the piano in ‘Wanderlied’. He could not always summon up the sonorous tone and rhythmic whip needed. Nor did he reflect the folksong element of ‘Wanderung’. The most spectacular song and the only individual one to have popularised itself is ‘Stille Tränen’, with its heavy, pulsating accompaniment beneath towering vocal phrases. I have heard voices stretched almost to breaking-point when this is treated in operatic fashion. Williams wisely held back, managing his breath competently and integrating the song credibly into the collection as a whole.

Deutsch’s vast experience alongside William’s fresh discovery of music which suited his voice united to make a rewarding evening. The only disappointment was that the performers did not offer an encore. I have only known this to occur in cases of illness or when the work is “Winterreise” (understandable – anything further would be bathetic) or “Die schöne Müllerin” (less justifiable after a work whose closing mood is less severe than its great companion piece). Presumably they thought the misanthropy of the penultimate song and the suicidal sentiments of the closing onw (both set to the same melody and demanding the same hushed, drained style) would be compromised by anything further. The supportive audience took it in good part.

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