Perfect English songs in fresh new colours: Roderick Williams sings Butterworth

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

Roderick Williams sings Butterworth

Embers of Romanticism

Another week, another online concert; and since orchestral music seems likely to be confined to screens and stereos for a while longer, one might as well try and experience something new. But not too new — I’ve pretty much had it up to here with the present. The Hallé orchestra is currently streaming a collection of Shropshire Lad songs by George Butterworth, conducted by Sir Mark Elder and sung by the baritone Roderick Williams in orchestral versions of his own creation. That seems ideal: music by the most perfect of English classical songwriters, in fresh and unfamiliar new colours. And time spent with an artist as likeable and intelligent as Williams is never wasted.

It’s filmed in the Hallé’s rehearsal hall, a converted church in Ancoats, and considering that it’s coming to you through speakers and a screen, it’s a strikingly direct way of launching Williams’s new arrangements into the world. There’s no pretence at replicating a live concert; the musicians are spaced widely around the hall in the now-standard Covid configuration, and Williams stands among them, singing direct to the camera. With a less sincere performer, it could feel unnerving — like participating in an unusually melodious Zoom meeting. This level of intimacy is impossible in even the smallest concert venue.

But with Williams it sort of works, and it certainly helps that every word he sings is perfectly clear and audible. No subtitles are provided or needed. Williams is a champion of classical song in the vernacular (his recording of Schubert’s Winterreise in English prompted an enjoyable outbreak of handbag-clutching among the Wigmore tendency) and it’s obvious, here, that he loves Housman’s poetry as much as Butterworth’s music.

Possibly he loves that music almost too much: his orchestrations busily sketch in layers of subtext and association that are only implied by Butterworth’s understated piano-and-voice originals. There’s a harp, and percussion; wind band and tingling triangle punctuate ‘Look Not In My Eyes’, like something by the young Elgar, and after a solo flute opens ‘Loveliest of Trees’ — shades of Vaughan Williams, as well as Butterworth’s own ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ — Williams can’t resist crowning the very first climax with a rapturous crash of the cymbals. Too much, too soon? The head says one thing, but in the presence of Williams’s unaffected manner and sun-flecked voice the heart says quite another.

If arranging piano music for orchestra is like colourising a black-and-white film, reducing an orchestral work for smaller forces is like — what, exactly? Creating a scale model? In any case, it’s a growth area, as it dawns on promoters and audiences that no one’s going to be playing, say, Strauss’s Alpine Symphony (quadruple woodwind, eight horns, offstage brass band and two sets of timpani, minimum) any time soon. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment — never knowingly behind the curve — is on it already, taking inspiration from Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, which commissioned miniaturised versions of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in cash-strapped post-1918 Vienna.

Cue some amusingly agile copywriting in the online programme book: apparently the great 1918-20 influenza outbreak took place in 1919-21. See what they’ve done there? Fair play to team OAE, though, and keep up at the back if you still thought that historically informed performance was confined to Monteverdi and Handel. The centenary is the pretext for a luxury goodie bag of Jugendstil purple patches, arranged by the Orchestra’s horn player Roger Montgomery and performed on period instruments by 23 players. The music — which includes excerpts from Tristan und Isolde and Salome, Webern’s Passacaglia and the rarely played (outside Germany) Prelude to Act Two of Pfitzner’s 1917 opera Palestrina — was apparently chosen because of its connection to that bestselling bonkbuster, Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. Always guaranteed to pull a crowd, that one.

Geoffrey Paterson conducted and it was gorgeous, with huge curving lines, russet and silver hues and a real sense of something awful looming in the twilight. Montgomery, as arranger, makes the most of the fact that Wagner and his followers used their colossal orchestras more as a compendium of subtly coloured chamber groupings than a source of brute decibels, though I wasn’t wholly sure about his use of the piano to fill out the texture in the Pfitzner. Schoenberg and co. tended to add a harmonium, which is like using flour to thicken a sauce. A piano, alone, is more like stirring in a handful of granola. But it was fascinating to hear the citric tone of an early 20th-century oboe slicing through saturated textures. And how I’d love to have felt, as well as heard, the physical impact of those vintage horns and brass; the rasp of a stopped note, or the way the air trembles as they sustain a chord. That really will have to wait for the concert hall.

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