Roderick Williams transformed English song with his gift for natural, direct communication. He's one of the finest champions of the genre, ever. Yet his legacy hasn't been preserved on recording at the level that it should be. It's scattered over many different labels, with varying production standards. Often, the more specialized the repertoire, the finer the standards.. So thanks to SOMM for this recording, a fine sampler, pitched for listeners new to the genre, as suggested by the rather basic liner notes. Some choices, however, are more esoteric and ought to be flagged up for more attention
Butterworth's Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad is basic repertoire, which Williams has performed many times. His recording from 2010 with Ian Burnside is one which most fans of English song will already have in their collections. Gerald Finzi's Let us Garlands Bring is another Williams staple, which he first recorded some twelve years ago. It's good, though, to have recent performances in high-quality sound. The four songs by John Ireland, Great Things, In Boyhood, Youth's Spring Tribute and the iconic Sea Fever, also appeared on Williams’s recording from 2008, and the Vaughan Williams songs, Silent Noon and The Vagabond, also have earlier incarnations. Nontheless, it is good to hear recent performances, in good sound quality. As Williams's voice matures, it hasn't lost its unaffected freshness. In every new performance, the music lives, afresh.
Williams has long been associated with Ian Venables, so the two Venables songs, A Kiss and Flying Crooked, are a very welcome inclusion in this set. A Kiss, from 1992, when Venables was in his 30's, is a setting of a Poem by Thomas Hardy that shows the influence of Gerald Finzi in its fidelity to text. Finzi set more Hardy poems than most, and Venables was closely involved in Finzi circles. Flying Crooked, to a poem by Robert Graves, is altogether more individual. It's a model of concise expressiveness. In just over one minute, Venables replicates the "honest idiocy of flight" that is the movement of a butterfly that "lurches here and here by guess/and god and hope and hopelessness". Like the butterfly, the music doesn't fly straight but flips about capriciously. A wonderful sense of freedom in the dancing notes in the piano part, executed with great delicacy by Susie Allan. The vocal part's a challenge, too. Williams’s voice soars and flutters playfully on the word "aerobatic". Wonderfully cheeky, and refreshing. This recording should have new listeners rushing for Williams's recording of Venable's The Song of the Severn, or indeed Williams's Severn & Somme collection (also with Susie Allan) for SOMM in 2006, so good that it's still a classic.
That's why this SOMM release is so worthwhile. It connects the mainstream of English song to modern development. Benjamin Britten's The Salley Gardens is a variant of a very old song indeed, as is The Ploughboy, but listen to how wittily Britten incorporates Schubert into the song. The rhythms suggest the ploughboy's physical energy but also hint at the manic nature of the lad's ambition. Ploughboy, politician and crook ! Allan's top notes fly as the pedal pounds bumptiously. The song also demonstrates how Williams can inject personality into his singing. As he sings "Whatever's good for me, sir, I never will oppose", his voice darkens. For a brief moment the ploughboy is revealing his true, venal self, behind the mock-merry cheekiness. In a similar vein, Peter Warlock's miniature, Jilian of Berry, where jolly melody hides deceit. The barmaid is generous, but her customers are cheats. Given Warlock's own propensity for drink and mischief , the song has deeper levels.
Three Ivor Gurney songs here, Black Stitchel, Lights Out and Captain Stratton's Fancy. illustrate a side of Ivor Gurney that has somewhat been obscured by the emphasis on his service in the war and its aftermath. Edward Thomas's mud-stained manuscript for his poem Light's Out lies in the Imperial War Museum, since Thomas was killed at Arras a hundred years ago, but both poem and song are about much more than war. "I have come to the borders of sleep, .....where all must lose their way, however straight....." Thomas’s syntax curls past the lines as they lie on the page, tracing a wayward path which Gurney follows, with great sensitivity. Something is coming to an end. Thus the minor key. and long, curving lines which Williams defines beautifully. But where does the future, lie, if it exists? Gurney builds brief pauses after each phrase. "To go into the unknown, ....I must enter...and leave...alone". The song ends, hovering, without resolution. In contrast, Captain Stratton's Fancy, which connects to the vigorously upbeat mood of Sea Fever (both texts by John Masefield) to The Vagabond and indeed to the boisterous Jilian of Berry. The piano part marches, while Williams sings with mock heroism. "like an old bold mate of Henry Morgan". Dutch courage? Another song which displays Williams’s ability to be at once funny and profound.