Those few seconds of breathless silence at the end of a recital before thunderous applause are a rare thing, and a sure sign that the evening has been a success. Such was the case at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday night after Roderick Williams and Gary Matthewman were called back to the stage for a second encore. We had been treated to an evening of Lieder and English song centred around Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel and the theme of wandering. Roderick Williams made the perfect vagabond, filling the stage with a confident presence that captivated the entire room. Matthewman was equally mesmerising, with a deft touch which at once supported and complemented the vocal line and allowed the piano to sing out the melodic lines when the music required.

Roderick Williams © Benjamin Ealovega
Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Ealovega

“The open road provides a pathway through the history of song”, we were told in the incredibly informative programme notes, and tonight’s programme took us on one such journey. The road was not always smooth and the wanderer shifted his character subtly from piece to piece, but Williams, both with his physical stance and impressive range of vocal colour, left us in no doubt as to the composer’s intention. We began the evening with four of Schubert’s 600 Lieder. Schubert himself travelled very little, but, as the subtitle to Die Schöne Müllerin suggests – “Im Winter zu lesen” (“To be read in winter”) – travel and the idea of departure were as much a state of mind as a physical act. Der Wanderer, with its mysterious opening chords, continually asks “Where?”, and Williams provided beautifully subtle interpretations of the descriptive text. Juxtaposed with the more upbeat and spirited wanderer of Der Wanderer an den Mond and the solemn chords of Wandrers Nachtlied I, the set closed with Rastlose Liebe. Published in 1821 and based on a text by Goethe, this showcased the accomplished virtuosity of Matthewman, with the tumultuous accompaniment recalling the snowstorm in the Thuringen forest during which this piece was conceived.

Schubert’s songs inspired many composers with his passionate journeys through mental and physical landscapes, but Mendelssohn’s early song Im Frühling states that the wanderer’s dreams have since been fulfilled. The upbeat traveller portrayed in this bubbling and wonderfully romantic setting was also apparent in Schumann’s Wanderung, from his ultimately despondent Kerner Lieder. In Brahms’ 1879 Feldeinsamkeit, arguably his greatest song, the traveller has a similarly contented glow, dispelling the sense of loneliness that pervades the majority of the Romantic repertoire. Mahler’s Ging, heut’ Morgen über’s Feld is an example of such a Romantic song: despite its buoyant setting, it portrays despair and pain which recalls Schubert’s melancholy songs. Inspired by the conclusion of his unhappy love affair with soprano Johanna Richter, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, from which cycle this song is taken, shares close ties with Mahler’s symphonies. The opening theme of the First Symphony appears in this song and the hallucinations of pastures and love are inevitably dashed hopes; the verdant imagery has a sharp sting in its tail. This provides a stark contrast with Wolf’s Der Musikant, whose simplicity was beautifully portrayed by Williams.

We then moved across the waters to England and Gerald Finzi’s setting of Hardy’s text Summer Schemes. The rolling accompaniment was tastefully managed and Williams imbued the text with personality and shape. The same was true of John Ireland’s The Vagabond – the simple chords from the piano let the text speak for itself, until we were once more plunged into virtuosity in Ernest Moeran’s setting of Joyce’s The merry green wood. We finished the first half with a homesick Gurney longing for the Severn Meadows from the World War I trenches and a setting of Masefield’s Tewkesbury Road by Michael Head.

The second half was a performance of Vaughan Williams’ song cycle Songs of Travel. Composed between 1901 and 04, the text is nine poems taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s volume of the same name. The cycle was originally set for voice and piano, although Vaughan Williams orchestrated the first, third and eighth songs, and his assistant Roy Douglas completed the remaining songs using the same instrumentation. Songs of Travel represent Vaughan Williams’ first real foray into songwriting and, unlike Schubert’s weary wanderer, Stevenson’s hero refuses to let nature beat him into submission: “Nature may batter him, but, like the traveller on the Tewkesbury Road, they only spur him on.” Williams provided a wonderfully fresh take on some of the most well-known repertoire for baritone, filling each setting with a revitalised and renewed energy which was a joy to watch. The control with which both performers managed the work and the sensitivity displayed were a treat, and thoroughly deserving of the hearty applause it received.