Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Williams / Middleton @ Wigmore Hall, London (online)

12 June 2020

Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall (Photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

Our coverage of the Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3’s live lunchtime concert series continues. Melanie Eskenazi was there (virtually).

How times have changed. When Matthias Goerne sang Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben in 2006, the critical reaction was mostly either indifferent or hostile, with one writer voicing the opinion “It’s the gay Frauenliebe, no thanks.” With the sole exception of the present writer, it was felt that ‘women’s songs’ should remain the province of ladies. Now here comes the ever affable Roderick Williams, the Tom Hanks of Lieder, to assert that he wants students to feel that “…the whole wealth of art song is theirs to explore” and to remind us that the very first singer of Schumann’s cycle was a baritone.

He is right, of course, and together with the ideally sympathetic Joseph Middleton, he made a very convincing case for not rejecting certain songs owing to their perceived specificity. In an empty hall, the ironically titled Woman’s Hour programme began with a finely judged Schubert set, of which ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ was the stand-out interpretation. Middleton’s inspired playing of the obsessive ‘spinning wheel’ accompaniment provided the perfect partner to Williams’ fervent singing, with words such as ‘Zauberfluss’ given just the right heady quality.

A Brahms set followed, with one song by Clara Schumann, Liebst du um Schönheit in its midst. ‘Mädchenlied’ conveyed the frustration of a girl who is uncertain about her future, and the inclusion of the Clara Schumann piece reminded us of the gentle subtlety of this composer’s art.

Frauenliebe und Leben, written by the recently married Robert Schumann, expresses the joy and fulfilment known by both partners in a marriage, but here focusing on the woman’s feelings via the poems of Chamisso, a lifelong supporter of women’s rights and, in this case, the right to express universal emotions through a woman’s voice. Such sentiments as being blind to all except the beloved, and being so happy that you imagine dying, are hardly the exclusive domain of women, but of course the sequence of being amazed to have been ‘chosen’, the joy of leaving her sisters, (a joy tinged with sadness), heartfelt admiration for her husband, tremulous happiness at telling him she’s pregnant, utter bliss as a mother and then deepest sorrow as a widow, would not inevitably impress everyone in the 21st century.

“…here comes the ever affable Roderick Williams, the Tom Hanks of Lieder…”

Although there were moments when we felt that the most intense emotions were being smoothed out (particularly in ‘An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust’, where the performance seemed rather too rushed), Willaims and Middleton convinced us that this wonderful song cycle loses nothing by being performed by a baritone. Middleton’s playing was as true to Schumann as can be imagined, the delicately hesitant vorspiel and the enrapturing nachspiel so very touching without any hint of sentimentality.

In ‘Seit ich ihn gesehen’ Williams displayed his smooth, natural legato line, and in ‘Ich kann’s nicht fassen…’ his depiction of the extremes of joy and disbelief was evocatively done. A small slip in that hectic song ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’ was deftly managed, and ‘Süsser Freund’ was full of feeling yet avoiding any mawkishness. The final song brought us from joy to sorrow with seamless skill.

The encore was Brahms’ ‘Sappische Ode’ which Williams told us he had had rejected as a competition entry because it was “a woman’s song.” Dedicating it to his first two singing teachers, it formed an appropriate ending to this persuasive recital.

• The series features a live concert every weekday in June. They can be viewed here: wigmore-hall.org.uk/watch-listen/live-stream

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