Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Male Elgar Sea Pictures : Roderick Williams Three Choirs Festival

At the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford last year,  Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but with typical flair, Roderick Williams and Susie Allan  presented them with a difference.  Listen here on BBC Radio 3

Williams started with RVW Four Last Songs. Divest oneself of notions of  Richard Strauss.  RVW's songs aren't nearly such masterpieces,  but a loose compilation of ideas left unfinished upon the composer's death. Procris is based on a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, Menelaus on the Odyssey. The last two last poems are more personal .The contemplative mood of Tired suggests a man assessing his past without rancour, and Hands, eyes and heart suggests inward, private emotions. Stylistically, they connect more to very early RVW, even pre-Ravel RVW, than to his finest works, but are still worth hearing, especially for English song specialists. I first heard them from the Ludlow English Song Weekend in May 2015.

Elgar is an essential feature of the Three Choirs Festival, which this year takes place in Gloucester.  But large-scale Elgar, rarely Elgar piano song.  Again, Roderick Williams to the rescue ! Elgar's  Sea Pictures  is usually heard with full orchestra, though Elgar himself transcribed the piano song version, and played it privately.  Elgar's art songs  are somewhat eclipsed by the fame of RVW, Quilter, Butterworth et al,  for in many ways they hark back to an earlier era.

Sea Pictures, however, was conceived with grand orchestral flourish, so this version is rather more than Elgar's other songs for voice and piano. Sea Pictures is also mezzo and contralto territory, so hearing it with a baritone makes it even more unusual.  Most of us are imprinted with memories of Janet Baker singing  "Yet, I the mother mild, hush thee, O my child" but the mother figure in the poem fades as the vision of Elfin Land emerges. The lower tessitura suits the last strophes, where  "Sea sounds, like violins"  lead the descent into slumber.  The maritime references in Sabbath Morning at Sea become more prominent: most sailors in Elgar's time were male, after all. The piano part in this song is distinctively Elgarian.  When RW sings "He shall assist me to look higher", you can almost feel the ship's sails billow in the wind.  A male voice works best with The Swimmer and its muscular, athletic swagger: very macho.  A pity that the BBC miked the piano too closely. When I heard Williams sing Sea Pictures in recital at the Oxford Lieder Festival with  Andrew West  five years ago, the balance was much more natural.

Coming up soon, from the same concert last year, two settings of texts by lesser-known poets of the First World War.  Rhian Samuel's A Swift Radiant Morning, (2015)  a setting of five poems by Charles Hamilton Sorley, a Marlborough man who died, aged only 20, at the Battle of Loos in October 1915 and Tim Torry's The Voice of Grief (2003), settings of Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)

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