Roderick Williams, Artist-in-Focus for Kings Place’s Voices Unwrapped season, began with his observations of the passionate arguments and fervent emotions of his children during lockdown, and how it was those extremes of youthful emotion that he hoped to capture in When I was one-and-twenty. His programme eschewed the usual chunks of full song cycles, choosing instead to mix songs from Die schöne MüllerinSongs of Travel and Liederkreis with gems from Rebecca Clarke, CW Orr and a few solo piano pieces. Only George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad settings stood alone (albeit still not the full set). The audience were encouraged to reserve applause and, as a result, we were drawn into this interaction between the songs and their varied takes on youthful emotions.

Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Ealovega

Most striking was Williams’ immediacy of communication, often singing as if speaking conversationally. Butterworth’s When I was one-and-twenty began with a sharp intake of breath, with the impatience of a young man, eager to interrupt us with his tale. And he gave the song’s punchline a deadpan earnestness – this young man truly believes that now he’s twenty-two, he understands everything. Williams moved around with the pent-up energy and urgency of youth, then stood rock solid still in the darker, more introspective moments. Williams’ control at the higher end of his register was also impressive, with particular lightness on the opening note of Loveliest of trees. The dry acoustic prevented his lowest notes from projecting with warmth over the piano in Vaughan Williams’ Bright is the Ring of Words, although this was but a moment in a demonstration of strength and control throughout, with a passionate bloom to his voice for All I seek, the heaven above in The Vagabond.

Williams’ Schubert had energy and impatience, with a bright twinkle for Das Wandern, and expertly voiced different characters in Der Neugierige. This was equally evident in Butterworth’s Is my team ploughing? A fragile ghostly voice moved towards bitterness, whilst the confidence of the living became less certain towards the song’s heartbreaking conclusion. Williams’ Schumann had youthful urgency and frustration, but also moments of heartfelt emotion, with Herz full of pain and anguish in Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen, for example.

In the Clarke, Williams and pianist Paul Cibis gave us darker passion and intensity in Aufblick, and plaintive crying in Stimme in Dunkeln. Orr’s settings from A Shropshire Lad are perhaps less transparent than Butterworth’s, written some twenty or so years later, not long before the next war. The glint in Williams’ eye as he sang of two lovers looking to be wed in Along the Field was soon wiped away as the singer’s own fate was revealed. Williams’ ability to shift the emotions as quickly as they turn in these songs is what made this recital so captivating throughout. No need for the comprehensive texts supplied, as his diction was faultless without ever being mannered, every word communicated with perfect clarity. Cibis provided slinky sliding chromatic lines in When I watch the living meet, as Williams gave us grit as well as ghostly darkness, whereas The Lent Lily was full of spring-like pastoral warmth. 

Cibis also deserves credit for the range of his playing, both in the varied accompaniments and in his solo pieces. He brought out the internal voicing with a natural simplicity in no.21 of Album für die Jugend, and Wilder Reiter (no.8) had bite and a real touch of wildness. His two Chopin Preludes had cascading ripples in no.10, and bubbling delicacy in no.23.

After all the energetic turmoil and angst, we were left with a reassuringly exquisite evocation of beauty in the world, with Williams radiant and Cibis silvery in Silent Noon.