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 Recording of the Week, Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside perform Schubert Lieder

A glorious all-Schubert recital from one of our local heroes is my Disc of the Week (and almost certainly one of my Discs of the Year, to be honest): I’ve been playing Roderick Williams’s Der Wanderer so much of late that if it were a cassette-tape it’d have worn out weeks ago. The charismatic English baritone’s a regular visitor to our shop in Leamington Spa, as well as a firm favourite on the recital scene in the area, and I’m happy to report that the warmth and immediacy which so endear him to audiences in live performance are in no way diminished by the recording studio. To hark back to one of my other discs of the summer and quote Josephine in HMS Pinafore, ‘his simple eloquence goes to my heart’: there’s a wonderfully unfussy openness and sincerity to Williams’s delivery that I’ve only ever heard rivalled by Christian Gerhaher, whose Nachtviolen (which has several songs in common with this new disc) would definitely represent Schubert on my hypothetical desert island.

Roderick Williams
Roderick Williams

Hugely acclaimed for his many recordings of English song in particular (check out his Finzi, Quilter and Vaughan Williams on Naxos to discover why), Williams has come to Schubert relatively late in his career: though the freshness and fervour of both voice and interpretation on show here make it difficult to believe, he’s just entered his sixth decade, and the recording marked the beginning of a three-year Schubertian odyssey which will see him exploring the great song-cycles for the first time in the public eye, inviting audiences to observe his work in progress through open rehearsals, masterclasses, book-groups and workshops in schools as well as ‘conventional’ recitals (you can read more about the project on his engaging and candid blog).

Rather than kick off his journey with the twin peaks of Winterreise or Die schöne Müllerin (Delphian’s founder Paul Baxter was uncharacteristically coy when I tried to probe him about plans in this department!), Williams’s beginning lies in Schubert’s end: the disc centres on the seven settings of poems by Rellstab from Schwanengesang, composed in the final year of Schubert’s short life. They’re flanked by two groups of songs which explore the idea of the wanderer and the seafarer respectively: I heard Williams give the premiere of Howard Skempton’s setting of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (soon to be recorded on NMC) just before he made this disc, and his ongoing immersion in briny romantic alienation is palpable. (Recent and upcoming operatic engagements include his debuts in the title-roles in Eugene Onegin and Billy Budd, and I don’t think it’s fanciful to hear shades of both in his Schubert: his anhedonic, disconnected Wanderer has all the repressed passion of Tchaikovsky’s anti-hero, whilst the lusty vigour and radiance of ‘Der Schiffer’ whetted my appetite to hear him as Britten’s guileless foretopman at Opera North in a few months’ time).

Williams’s baritone has acquired additional darkness and depth since those English song discs from the 2000s, which pay expressive dividends in the ‘Wanderer’ songs - yet even in the darkest nights of the soul there’s always a flicker of hope which asserts itself more tangibly than in rival interpretations. But for me it’s the exuberance and ardour of songs like ‘Willkommen und Abschied’ (the arresting opening track), ‘Liebesbotschaft’ and above all ‘Frühlingssehnsucht’ which make this a disc to conjure with: little miracles from Iain Burnside here, too, who plays with such clarity that details which are often glossed over make their presence felt, and such variety of touch that it often sounds like he’s got an entire showroom of different pianos at his disposal (I checked the booklet - he hasn’t).

Anyway, enough with the comparisons and analysis: this is just one of those recordings that never fails to make my world seem a slightly better place for having listened to it - ‘Du holde Kunst’ indeed.

Roderick Williams (baritone) & Iain Burnside (piano)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC