FRIDAY NIGHT IN PARIS – Roderick Williams with Ensemble 360 – Crucible Playhouse – May 24th 2024

FRIDAY NIGHT IN PARIS – Roderick Williams with Ensemble 360 – Crucible Playhouse – May 24th 2024

Resplendent concerts continue apace in Music in the Round’s 2024 Festival of Chamber Music and mid-way, a sparkling Friday Night in Paris was spent in the company of Faure, Ravel, Poulenc, Ensemble 360 and world-renowned baritone Roderick Williams OBE.

Singer at opera houses worldwide, at Last Night of the Proms and at King Charles Coronation, Roderick Williams is, to boot, MiR’s Singer-in-Residence and passionately involved in learning and participation programmes like Schubert in Schools and We Compose that spread the joy of music to broader communities.

Joy was spread tonight by sturdy performances of Faure’s Piano Quintet No 1, Ravel’s three astonishing Madagascan songs Chansons Madecasses, Francis Poulenc’s spectacular Sextet and Faure’s La Bonne Chanson, in which love poems by Paul Verlaine are set to music.

Faure worked long years on Piano Quintet No 1 from 1887 to 1905, still composing other works, meanwhile (like tonight’s finale piece La Bonne Chanson). As glorious interplays of piano and strings soar and dip, journeys of dynamic, textural and rhythmic contrasts bring an ebb and flow of melodies and counterpoints. The adagio’s airborne emotion is exquisitely engaging while inadvertent smiles arise in a finale that hints at future hit, Fly Me to the Moon.

Ravel’s Chansons Madecasses of 1925-26 for voice, flute/piccolo, cello and piano are painfully captivating. As ever, Roderick Williams’ vibrant performance, ideal for intimate “in the round” settings like this, is intensely dramatic as his skillfully expressed dynamic and tonal range convey emotion and meaning so well that listeners hang on every note and well enunciated word. His sunny charm, easy good humour and beaming smile radiate warm enthusiasm in spoken introductions, too. These days, he points out, the prose-poem words of Ravel’s three songs, written with strong anti-colonial flavour by French aristocrat de Parny (1753-1814), would flag up words like “appropriation”, “racial and gender politics” and “cancel culture”. But they’re striking, engaging songs.

As voice and instruments ring and sing in interplay Nahandove’s delightful dancing word patterns revel in the realms of dreamy, joyful sensuality, seduction and love-making. Then, sudden, blood-curdling alarm and loud outcry and the anti-slavery song Aoua! Harsh dissonances, creeping semitones, disturbing rhythms and piercing flute-notes sound as the voice laments, warns of the cruelty, violence and deception of the tyrant whites and extols the preciousness of freedom. In Il Est Doux De Se Coucher, the flute’s beauty hails the return of serenity as dreamy female allure is contemplated, yet haunting unease comes still in soft clashes and percussive elements that lead on to a humorous, yet harsh, bump to reality at the end.

Huge fun and energy pour from Ensemble 360’s flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, piano and horn into Poulenc’s amazingly busy, engagingly exciting Sextet. Written in 1931/32 with final revision in 1939, the piece was first performed in Paris in the Occupation in 1940 with Poulenc at the piano. Into the rich, luxuriating mix pour ragtime, jazz-time, a tribute to Ravel and a Mozart pastiche that bring captivating passages and calls from each scintillating player, with purposeful hastenings, insistent pulsings, hurrying rhythms, strident clashes, comical, chirpy skips and hops, dreamy, tinkling reveries and haunting, mystical quietude. A big wow all round.

Inspired by his own infatuation for singer Emma Bardac, Faure arranged nine of Verlaine’s poems in the song cycle La Bonne Chanson. The fabulously musical words of the French poems express the idealised, idolising love Verlaine (26) had for enchanting Mathilde (16) as he contemplates her heavenly attributes and compares her and the blinding joy and ecstasy of romance and falling in love to the beauties of Nature.

To establish mood and emotion, Williams gave a dramatic reading of each poem in English before painting the scenario in music in French, his colourfully expressive dynamics and tone, along with those of the instrumentalists, conjuring up stars, pale moon, blue skies and sunshine, lark and nightingale, the various seasons, a golden halo and Paradise itself. It’s just as well that later events don’t feature in these poems and songs – the facts that Verlaine had drink/drug problems and soon left young bride Mathilde and their baby for the poet Rimbaud (17), whom he shot and wounded and for which he went to prison! A most drastic change in mood would be required there! But as it was, all remained lovely!

Tonight’s programme of exciting pieces, superbly performed, earned warranted loud appreciation from a delighted audience.

Eileen Caiger Gray