A welcome trend in Scotland has been the foundation and growth of niche music festivals, each with their own particular character and feel, but all offering exciting programmes often attracting well established artists and groups into small and unusual venues well off the beaten track. Both the Perth and St Magnus Festivals established the trail blazing format some years ago now, but the recent Lammermuir and East Neuk Festivals along with the first Cumnock Tryst Festival this autumn have provided more focus.

Roderick Williams © Benjamin Ealovega
Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Ealovega

St Andrews is a town with a rich vocal tradition with several very active singing groups. At a university where once upon a time students greeted their lecturers with song, it is a perfect venue for the recently established St Andrews Voices, now in its third year. Baritone Roderick Williams spent the previous afternoon coaching singers in a special workshop, and was joined by his accompanist Iain Burnside in the University’s charming Younger Hall for a compelling and unusual evening of song.

The programme was deliberately chosen to examine the thin borderline between true madness and genius: a ragged Spanish wanderer railing against women, a composer in mental decline, a poet we struggle to understand yet who uses the clearest English and the darkness clouding Schubert’s last songs.

In 1694, Thomas d’Urfey dramatization of Don Quixote used Purcell’s song Let the Dreadful Engines.  Sung by Cardenio who appears from afar, he voices his mad woeful tale of unlucky love and disappears off, with Quixote in hot pursuit in search of another adventure. Britten’s adaptation of  Purcell’s melody and ground bass was a fine opener for Williams. In expansive voice, he gave a truly animated performance, sometimes pointing right at us as if we too were responsible for Cardenio’s tirade. A quieter but ever bitter Britten “good night” ended this rather thrilling outburst.

Gloucester born Ivor Gurney returned from the Great War gassed, shot and suicidal, yet eventually managed to resume his musical studiesThe Four Songs were written within a year of the war ending, and provide glimpses into that world of horrors through poets Francis Ledwidge, John Masefield, Walt Whitman and Edward Thomas. Rich, haunting piano from Gurney specialist Iain Burnside gave Williams the perfect platform to relate the heart-breaking wartime stories with a lightness that conveyed Gurney’s vulnerability and the mental challenges of a survivor.

To end the English song first half, we returned to Britten and his strange Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. Williams explained that although the words are clear, the meaning of these poems is enigmatic, yet even in performance he can discover new interpretations. Burnside and Williams, in a faultless partnership, shaped this world of restless music with copious amounts of light and shade. Deep darkness descended for The Poisoned Tree when a man sees his foe laid out dead from a poisoned apple, The Tyger’s roar became a low growl, and Burnside played notes left hand through right in the strange Proverb VI. Williams completely inhabited every story, not just singing but performing: a fly, a chimney sweeper, and really trying to make sense of why “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of religion”. It was a sombre and perplexing song cycle, yet I felt both performers were in their element.

Schubert’s last songs, published after his death as Schwanengesang (Swan Song) were a journey from light, through fear and despair to a final joyful farewell. Burnside’s piano bubbled brook-like in the lovesick Libesbotschaft yet turning to solemn blockier chords in Kriegers Ahnung, bleak thoughts of a soldier on the eve of battle. This was a remarkable partnership between pianist and singer, no more so than in the lovesong Ständchen where Williams showed the warmth of his voice and the tempos swayed in unison, bending the music into shapes like watching wind blowing across a barley field. And so Abschied, Schubert’s final brave farewell to city, gardens, maidens and the stars, with major and minor chords demonstrating the line between courage and fate.

Williams asked us if one really should follow Schubert’s farewell with an encore. He excused his choice of Purcell’s beautiful Music for a While as pure music therapy. This short, light and understated solemn performance was a thrilling and moving end to a wonderful evening.