Eileen Caiger Gray reviews Shifting Perspective at Sheffield (February 28th 2019)
Expressive singing and engaging, dramatic delivery are what Roddy Williams is all about, and in this evening of Shifting Perspective, Andrew West was at the piano to complement Williams’ baritone narratives, as oft he does, and provide a richness of musical dramas all of his own.
The many projects of award-winning Williams, OBE since 2017, span festivals and concerts at home and abroad, big finale BBC Prom (2014) and work with major UK opera companies, a unique, exciting staging of Britten’s War Requiem with ENO now in the pipeline for The Colisseum in November. He’s prolific, too, in his role as Singer in Residence with Music in the Round, based in Sheffield, his sparkle lighting up various South Yorkshire venues as, assuming the persona of a youth, he enacts a thrilling, icy journey through Schubert’s Winterreise or an up and down romance with Die Schone Mullerin or brings the drama of his musical storytelling to world premieres of Howard Skempton’s recent compositions for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge) and Man and Bat (D.H.Lawrence). In Music in the Round‘s Learning and Participation programme, the former teacher spreads the joy of music even further afield with workshops and performances for youngsters, oldsters and even babies and toddlers at magical Concerteenies sessions.
In Shifting Perspective, songs composed by two men, Brahms and Schumann and based on poems also written by men, actually voice a female viewpoint. Schumann’s popular Frauenliebe und Leben premiered, in fact, with a baritone voice (and Clara Schumann on piano) but the cycle is now more often sung by sopranos. Tonight, though, Mr Williams assumed the female persona to sing of falling in love and becoming a wife, mother, then widow. He admits gender politics rear up, some people infuriated whenever men presume to voice women’s thoughts, but his role as singer, narrator and dramatist is to convey the moods and emotion of the words and music, including outdated ideas of uxorial duty and obedience. He certainly conveys the feelings and meanings with beauty, sincerity and fine clarity of diction, expressively shaping dynamics and tone, sensitively conveying contrasts of mood within and between songs, as when Schumann’s narrator pours out her utter joy as she feeds her baby, while completely shattered next moment by her husband’s death.
Three songs in English by Herbert Howells and songs by three female composers that are based on poems by men, lent lively balance and contrast to the programme, while a further shift in perspective meant the new Ryan Wigglesworth composition listed on the original programme wasn’t on it any more. Still, it’s hard to remain overly disappointed when entertained so well.
The fabulous changing moods in the narratives of Herbert Howell’s twentieth century poems are ideal for an engaging storyteller and proved particular crowd pleasers. Courtesy of Walter de la Mare’s King David, Shelley’s Widow Bird and Gibson’s Girl’s Song, each song delivers its own thoughtful finale, the last song earning loud applause as the jaunty, jolly, humorous mood of the travelling pig cart turns so quickly to something very different.
Played amidst the Brahms pieces with their own contrasting moods, Clara Schumann’s Liebst du um Schonheit stood out impressively, the simple, tender plea in Rickert’s words being reflected purely and tenderly in the music and singing. Centuries on, Rhian Samuel’s beautiful Summer Songs with musings on sunshine and a flitting, darting dragonfly, and Sally Beamish’s exciting Four Songs from Hafez, written in 2007 but based on a fourteenth century Persian poem, provided stark contrast to the more soothingly lyrical offerings. The piano’s more modern stops, starts and spiky, uneasy cavortings express more musical angst as they reflect on love, nature, and the agitation and discontent of the human condition.
This was a lively, interesting programme, delightfully delivered.