This month, we explore the world of Lieder. What makes a good programme? How should audiences approach Lieder recitals? We talk to today’s leading exponents of art song to gain an insight into a world that can sometimes be difficult for audiences to crack. Baritone Roderick Williams is a leading song recitalist, a regular at London's Wigmore Hall and makes his North American recital debut in February with a unique performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang in New York's Park Avenue Armory.

Roderick Williams © Benjamin Ealovega
Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Ealovega

Bachtrack: What criteria do you use when putting together a programme for a song recital?

Roderick Williams: There is so much wonderful repertoire to choose from; where to start? Often a concert promoter will suggest a theme to fit in with a festival programme; perhaps a composer’s anniversary or music from a particular country or period. Or perhaps the nature of the venue itself might suggest a theme; for example, concerts in Stratford in Avon would suggest Shakespeare programmes, or perhaps somewhere coastal could result in a programme of sea songs. It makes sense to find some sort of link, a hook on which to create a programme. I think that is more satisfying for all concerned than simply a list of current repertoire, unconnected other than being for baritone. I might choose to concentrate on a particular poet which gives me a chance to programme several different composers. Sometimes simply deciding to sing in one language - French song for example - gives me an excuse to select my favourite repertoire from that genre.

What advice would you give audience newcomers to Lieder recitals to help them approach the repertoire? Should performers talk to their audiences during recitals?

Two different questions in one here. To audiences, I would say this; thank you for coming, first of all! Many people are a bit skeptical about song recitals; I think they find them intimidating. While chamber or orchestral music might be a ‘universal language’, song is more specific and if someone sings at you in Czech all evening and you don’t understand a word, you might think it a wasted evening! So; don’t be intimidated by the fact that the performer is looking right at you. Sometimes the singer benefits from a friendly face too. If there is anything an audient member can do before a song recital, it is to have a look at the poems, in whatever language (including one’s native tongue). It helps to know what a song is about, even before having heard a note of the music.

As for talking to an audience, I think it is hugely helpful for audiences to realise that the performers are human too. One doesn’t need to be a stand up comedian but the opportunity to relax an audience and give them an specific insight into the music on the programme is one to be grasped when possible. I should however note that I personally find it tiring on my voice to switch between speaking and singing so, while I might speak once or twice in an evening, I try to keep it to a minimum now.

Roderick Williams © Benjamin Ealovega
Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Ealovega

How does it feel to see heads buried in programmes following the text during a recital? Would surtitles help? 

I used to get a little rattled by audience heads disappearing into programmes, most especially when I was singing English song to UK audiences; I thought it was a sad indictment on my diction! However, when I get a chance to listen to other people sing recitals, I realise how important it is to see a poem on the page. You can appreciate its shape and structure much better by looking at it which is, after all, how the poet envisaged it would be consumed. Song is linear and that is not always an advantage. I’ve come to realise that the audience are the ones who have paid to come to my recitals and however they want to experience the concert, that’s fine by me.

Surtitles could be an answer but it needs to be handled very sensitively. I have had an experience of a big screen above and behind me that felt like a communal ‘follow the bouncing ball’ event; but the only person who couldn’t see the screen was me. I hoped I’d had my last Viva Voce exam when I graduated.

What advantages are there to the Lieder platform from the operatic stage?

On the opera stage you have a conductor and a director and you need to dance to their tune. It is their combined show; they are responsible for shaping the evening as a whole and you play a part in that. A song recital on the other hand is a collaboration between you and your pianist; all the skills you learn from a good conductor and director you need to employ for your own ends.

I would point out that you are only required to be one character during an opera; in a recital you are often a different person with each song. This can be demanding. And in an opera, you are unlikely to be onstage the entire evening. A recital programme can feel relentless in comparison; it really requires a different stamina and level of continuos concentration.

What is your favourite song/Lied to perform?

This is an impossible question. My stock answer, which may sound facetious but actually has some truth in it, is this; the song I’m currently singing.

Which languages do you prefer to sing in?

Every language has its attractions. I love singing in English to English speaking audiences, especially if they might have preconceptions that artsong has to be in German by definition. To see the light of real-time understanding in their eyes is wonderful. But English isn’t always a great language for pure singing. Italian has fewer diphthongs to negotiate as all singers will say. But the sounds of Italian, French, German, Russian… even Elvish all have their unique qualities, how they feel in the mouth, on the tongue. I’m just forever glad that I deal in words when I make music.

Do you have a regular pianist to partner you in recitals? What are his/her best qualities?

I have a long list of pianists with whom I regularly collaborate and many more with whom I’d like to do more. I love what each and every one brings to table. It is particularly rewarding to perform the same song with different players; sometimes the differences are very subtle, sometimes huge. But it is always an opportunity for me to learn something new.