It’s said that many of us are experiencing heightened dreams during this pandemic; anxiety bubbles to the surface as we slumber, pushing us into some curious situations. I felt I had wandered into one of those dreams last night, when I found myself sitting in an empty Royal Festival Hall, with just a handful of others, listening to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed not by a conductor, keyboard player or leader, but by a singer… and he had his back to us.

Roderick Williams conduct the OAE
© Southbank Centre | Mark Allan

Dream or not, here was the baritone Roderick Williams, setting in motion Telemann’s cantata Die Stille Nacht (Der am Ölberg zagende Jesus), connecting directly with the players, singing with them, sending his velvet voice straight into their midst as they played in the round. This was a concert like no other; not meant for a live audience but designed for those listening on BBC Radio 3 and those who will see it on the OAE’s new streaming service. 

In such intimate, chamber-like conditions, the orchestra could afford to play right down, following Williams’ style of singing, rather than his understated directions; feeling their way together through this delicious score. Williams’ commitment to the words, describing Christ’s night on the Mount of Olives, was total, and the band responded in kind.

Roderick Williams
© Southbank Centre | Mark Allan

Things were a little shakier in JS Bach’s Cantata no. 82, Ich habe genug. The surprisingly brisk tempo of the opening seemed to leave little room for solo oboist Katerina Spreckelsen to settle and take flight and so a precious moment was hurried away, but there were no such worries in “Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen” or in the glorious sunshine of the closing “Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod”.

Handel’s Italian cantata Apollo and Daphne is enjoying a Covid wave, perfect as it is for socially-distanced singing. Just days ago, the Royal Opera chose it for their first foray in front of a live (and live-stream) audience, and here it was again, played with the pungent edge that the OAE always brings to Handel. It tells of Apollo’s fruitless pursuit of the chaste nymph Daphne, who enrages the god with her refusal to accept his advances and turns herself into a laurel tree to escape his sweaty grasp.

Rowan Pierce, Roderick Williams and the OAE
© Southbank Centre | Mark Allan

With his beautiful, creamy baritone and pleasant demeanour, even at his most bold and forthright, it’s hard for Williams to convince us he is a truly obnoxious, priapic, sex-pest sun god. He’s more at home in the reflective arias, such as his perfectly judged “Come la rosa con la sua spina” and his final lament “Cara pianta” where he repents for his foul behaviour.

Soprano Rowan Pierce displayed just the right degree of satin and steel in her portrayal of determined Daphne, and charmed in her arias “La più benedetta è quest'anima” and “Come in un paradiso gentile”, but above all this felt like a truly collegiate performance, with only minimal direction needed from Williams. These fine instrumentalists listen so closely to one another, moving together as as one cohesive whole. 

This performance will be streamed on OAE player from 9th November