The baritone Roderick Williams has only very recently embarked on his “Schubert project”, an encounter with the composer’s great song cycles, and he has chosen to begin with the last of them, Schwanengesang. Schwanengesang was largely assembled and entitled ‘Swansong’ by the publisher. After Schubert’s death. Unlike the longer narrative cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise with their settings of a single poet, it sets fourteen different poems by three poets, seven varied ones by Rellstab, six mostly bleaker ones by Heine, and to end a single poem by Seidl Die Taubenpost (The Carrier-pigeon), a lighter, if wistful, envoi. The songs thus range more widely than in a fully achieved cycle, and Roderick Williams and Susie Allan were expert companions through all the collection’s varying moods, and sounded as if they had been playing and singing this splendid work together for very much longer than they have, no doubt because of the thoroughness of their preparation (which the singer writes about revealingly in his blog on this project).

Roderick Williams © Benjamin Ealovega
Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Ealovega
Williams and Allan are well established and much loved as a recital duo, especially in English song, but this evening had the feel of a new venture for them. As a full-time accompanist, it is possible that the pianist is the more experienced Schubertian, although ‘accompanist’ is a rather demeaning term for the role and importance of the piano parts in these integrated settings for voice and piano, in which the melodic focus can shift in a heartbeat from voice to instrument and back. Thus Susie Allan was lightly tripping (and never merely trudging) in the guitar-like piano part (marked staccatissimo) for Ständchen, as well as most touching in the many lyrical echoes of the voice, reflecting the phrasing of the singer.

In a short speech at the end, Roderick Williams whimsically claimed he might know as many as half the people in the audience. That is not too implausible in such a small venue, and perhaps contributed to the feeling of a real Schubertiad, an evening of song for a group of friends and acquaintances. He also invited us to get online and post views on the evening, perhaps, he joked, with such observations as “Roddy, just get back to Vaughan Williams!” I doubt anyone will do that, for Williams, on this evidence, seems well on the way to joining that select company of fine contemporary British Schubertians. It sounded as if by waiting until the task just had to be attempted, he has gained immeasurably. Time and again he provided insight into familiar words and music, and yet made it all sound fresh – no doubt because it is fresh, not his hundredth performance. The Wanamaker Playhouse is an ideal venue for song, with its candlelit atmosphere and intimate connection between performers and audience. But Williams used these conditions very musically, keeping everything in scale from a refined quiet singing to the hysterical fortissimo at the climax of the Der Doppelgänger, and able to confide the joys and hopes – and terrors – of these magnificent songs like a bardic presence, vouchsafing unto us the last secrets of the heart that Schubert was to sing.

Just as Schubert’s Scwhanengesang is not quite a song cycle, so this occasion was not quite a song recital. The collection does not fill an evening, so that singers usually add songs to create a full programme. Perhaps one day this venue will present it as part of a drama of Schubert's last days. Here the programme added not more music (apart from an encore of An die Musik), but readings of poetry, which, in the words of Roderick Williams in the programme booklet, “complement and in some case confront the songs”. These were interspersed throughout the evening, so that we did not hear even the Heine or Rellstab settings performed continuously. The reader was Jenny Agutter, reading sometimes to us and sometimes, with a half turn, more to the singer. She also briefly introduced each half with a short description of the songs’ messages. A few slips on a couple of the longer polysyllabic German words apart, she was a warm and ingratiating reader. The readings were mostly well chosen to follow or precede particular songs, even if not all were of a calibre to match Schubert’s inspiration. Sometimes the chosen reading was less than compelling, and thus lowered the emotional temperature, denying us the growth and continuity of a full recital. But when the programme closed, with the very last song Schubert was to write, preceded by Auden’s The Composer, quite beautifully read, the format triumphed:

                        You alone, alone, imaginary song

                        Are unable to say an existence is wrong

                        And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.



Read our Lieder interview with Roderick Williams here