Irreverent and funny Lieder? Roderick Williams's recital at the Oxford Lieder Festival sparkled wth wit and joie de vivre. The atmosphere was electric - Williams is a much loved "local" boy. Indeed, he made his earliest public appearance at the Holywell Music Room, so it was a kind of homecoming. Many in the audience had been listening to him for years. They were rewarded by a very well chosen programme and a particularly vivacious performance. Williams in now entering his prime, his upper register secure, but it's the agility of his voice that impresses. Lovely tone is one thing, but flexible, fluid singing is a better sign of technique.
Frühe und Fröhe ! Williams chose 6 selections from Mahler's Lieder aus der Jugendzeit. In Aus! Aus! a young soldier is thrilled to be marching off to war, hence the rousing refrain. Yet Mahler's mock serious setting implies more. Williams sings the refrain so you hear the stolid, unimaginative lad who prefers playing soldiers to playing with girls, and prefers drinking to thinking. Even more picaresque is Um Schlimme Kinder artig zu machen, where Williams's liveliness captures the jaunty rhythm of the prancing horse. The man sings "cuckoo! cuckoo!". It's a signal to the mother. When he sees how naughty the woman's children are, he flees. Again, there's a double meaning. It tells kids to behave or they don't get goodies from the stranger. On the other hand if they didn't act up, their mother would fool around. Williams's very mobile face lights up, singing the last "kuk kuk" with savage delight.
Some composers might be tempted by the nightingales and lovers in Ich ging mit Lust to write saccharine kitsch, but Mahler sends up the cosiness factor, while writing a melody so beautiful, even the biggest kitsch fans could swoon to it. Andrew West plays the rococo piano part beautifully, so Williams can mix utter sincerity with cheerful wit. The agility of his voice paid off handsomely here. The high parts are so tricky that even Thomas Hampson strains to reach them. Williams is so flexible that they flow as smoothly as the melody.
In Hans und Grete Williams leaps from darkly steady rhythms to the almost yodel-like Juchhe! Many singers have been thrown by that but Williams makes it sound easy. There are relatively few recordings of these songs. Thomas Hampson is the benchmark, his recording having the benefit of orchestrations by Luciano Berio, very sympathetic to Mahler's idiom. Matthias Goerne does a programme mixing these songs with later Wunderhorn songs, which is very good, but not preserved on tape. So Roderick Williams would be doing a duty to art if he records these songs for posterity.
Hugo Wolf died tragically, but he, too, had a wicked sense of humour. Williams didn't chose the obviously funny Mörike and Goethe settings but picked selections from the Italienisches Liederbuch, where the wit is more subtle, secondary to the sheer beauty of the poems. In Schon streckt' ich aus im Bett, the poet leaps out of bed to roam the streets singing about his love. The wandering shifts in the melody reflect the gentle movements of the poet playing his lute in the night : William's voice caught the sensuality. Even more mysterious is Heut' Nacht erhob ich mich um Mitternacht, where the poet awakes to find his heart has jumped from his chest and run away. The loving way Williams sings "Du, Traute" makes it completely logical.
Williams's forte has hitherto rested with English song, but he's worked on his German and now sounds very good. His Schumann Kerner-lieder were enjoyable. Baritones often slip up on the very high "girl's voice" in Stirb, Lieb' und Freud', so it's proof of Williams's maturity that he sang with smoothness and control. Less well-known were the Korngold songs from op 14 Lieder im Abschieds. Written when the composer was 23, they are a young man's attempts to write something ambitiously elaborate. He marked 198 of 200 bars with instructions for performance. They're good songs but not spontaneous or freely expressed. Korngold was a nice guy, but so dominated by his father that perhaps he couldn't allow himself the irreverent freedom of a young Mahler or Wolf.