The penultimate concert in a three-year project to record the complete songs of Hugo Wolf, this Oxford Lieder Festival concert’s programme was based around settings of Goethe. With songs by Beethoven, Carl Loewe, Karl Zelter and Franz Schubert thrown in for good measure, the evening brought together four very different singers (with soprano Fflur Wyn and mezzo-soprano Rowan Hellier standing in for the indisposed Louise Alder and Christine Rice).

Roderick Williams © Benjamin Ealovega
Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Ealovega

The evening saw the songs divided between the four singers, with changes mostly occurring every song or two. The first two songs of Beethoven’s Op. 75 opened the concert on an uncertain note: the partnership between Rowan Hellier and pianist Sholto Kynoch in “Kennst du das Land” felt somewhat unstable, and Adrian Thompson positively overpowered the Holywell Music Room in “Neue Liebe, neues Leben”. In this case, the appearance of Roderick Williams certainly saw things looking up: his performance of the third song, “Aus Goethes Faust”, saw a greater connection with both text and audience, narrating the whimsical extract (known as Mephistopheles’ “Song of the Flea”) in an appropriately playful manner.

The Wolf settings in the concert were drawn from the composer’s 1890 publication Goethe-Lieder (specifically, numbers 11–31). Ranging from bawdiness to delicacy, and irreverence to heroism, the songs cover a broad expressive range. Adrian Thompson tended to be given the more laddish character types (“Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt”, “Frech und Froh”). Unfortunately, his voice jarred with these youthful roles: his upper range was far from effortless, and he sacrificed beauty of tone for power (seeming to bark out the end of “Frech und Froh I”). Thankfully, his performance of Schubert’s Geheimnis at the start of the second half saw a more nuanced performance (although the second stanza saw him revert to his tendency to blast the music out).

Although displaying a gorgeous sound, Rowan Hellier seemed slightly uncomfortable. Occasionally marred by intonational troubles, she didn’t quite embrace Goethe’s characters and could have exploited the poetic content of the texts a little more. This was a problem I occasionally found with Sholto Kynoch’s accompaniment: at times, a little more rubato would have been welcome, and he seemed to rush through the piano postludes (admittedly, these are often overly long).

Making her first solo appearance in the second half, Fflur Wyn showed impressive control at the top of her range. At times her voice felt slightly thin (as in “Wandrers Nachtlied II”), but her star turn came with the pair of songs about the shepherdess. After letting loose in “Die Spröde”, “Die Bekehrte” saw Wyn bring a heartbreaking sense of longing and melancholy to the haunting reminiscences of the previous Lied.

It was Roderick Williams who turned out the star performances of the night. He brought a clear dramatic vision to each song, approaching Goethe’s characters with empathy while retaining the sense of dark humour which underpins many. From the earnestness and poise of “Königlich Gebet” to the tenderness at the end of “Blumengruß”, each song showed a deep engagement with the text while displaying exemplary technical control (not least the impressive dynamic range in the refrain of “Cophtisches Lied I”). Just as important a factor was his sheer enjoyment of performance, beaming throughout the rollicking “Genialisch Treiben” and watching the other performers with a hearty grin.

Perhaps slightly misjudged was the decision to bring all four singers together at the end of the first half and start of the second. The voices just didn’t blend well, and there were problems with balance in both ensemble pieces. More than slightly cringeworthy were the pantomime exits at the end of Wolf’s “Epiphanias”: Williams, Wyn and Thompson strutted out one by one, interacting with the audience on their way. The balance issues caused problems again in Loewe’s Gesang der Geister, although the song allowed Wyn to demonstrate her aptitude for florid ornamentation.

This was an uneven set of performances, then, with Roderick Williams as the clear star. However, the evening added some excellent interpretations to the acclaimed Wolf series, bringing the set towards a strong final instalment.