sat 11/07/2020

Roderick Williams, Joseph Middleton, Wigmore Hall online/BBC Radio 3 review - gender roles in song examined | reviews, news & interviews

Roderick Williams, Joseph Middleton, Wigmore Hall online/BBC Radio 3 review - gender roles in song examined

Roderick Williams, Joseph Middleton, Wigmore Hall online/BBC Radio 3 review - gender roles in song examined

A strong case for egalitarianism in all art song

Roderick Williams: lyrical-tenderBoth images taken from Wigmore Hall livestream

I'm not sure if it was the beauty of Roderick Williams’s velvety vocals, the poignant delight of seeing a live performance in a concert hall after all this time, or my generally unusual frame of mind during lockdown that caused me to immediately burst into tears at the opening bars of Schubert’s "Gretchen am spinnrade" ("Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel"), but the fact no other audience members were around to witness my impromptu blubbering was certainly one plus point to watching Williams and pianist Joseph Middleton’s Wigmore Hall recital at home on my laptop. Having listened to most of the Wigmore's BBC special broadcasts on the radio, I wasn’t quite prepared for the eerie power of watching two musicians performing to an empty hall.

Woman’s Hour – a recital so called because of its length, but also because Williams has chosen to sing works usually sung by women – invited the audience to consider the question "Should a man be singing these songs?". Though these works are about female outlooks and experiences, they are predominantly male settings of male poetry, so to hear a man seek to empathise with the female protagonist seems rather apt. In fact, it feels odd that it’s an oddity. As Williams himself says, "playing and singing songs is an act of empathy, of imagination. It doesn’t matter who we are so long as we can access in some way emotions and feelings we feel to be true."

Williams opened with three songs by Schubert – "Gretchen am Spinnrade", "Der Tod und das Mädchen" ("Death and the Maiden") and "Die junge Nonne" ("The Young Nun"). He wonderfully portrayed the wrought angst of the young Gretchen, pregnant and spurned by her lover, the trepidation of the young girl approaching death and the celestial bliss of the novice. Moving on to Brahms, Middleton’s exquisite playing captured the bird’s tender fragility in "An die Nachtigall" ("To the Nightingale") and gave a rich, textured backdrop to "Mädchenlied" and "Das Mädchen".

Turning to some music written by a woman – Clara Schumann – the second of her Three Songs, "Liebst du um Schönheit" ("If You Love Beauty"), setting the same Rückert poem which Mahler was to turn to, saw a lyrical and tender performance from both singer and pianist (Middleton and Williams pictured below). Back to Brahms, this set of seven songs ended as it began with another song inspired by a nightingale. Middleton’s delicate ornamentation in the opening bars beautifully emulated the chirp of a bird, and Williams’s sensitive portrayal of the nightingale’s bittersweet cry was a lovely end to this group of pieces. Roderick Williams and Joseph MilddletonThe recital ended with Robert Schumann’s cycle Frauen-Liebe und Leben (A Woman's Love and Life), settings of poetry by Adelbert von Chamisso. Chamisso, so BBC Radio 3 presenter Martin Handley told us, was an advocate for gender equality, which may surprise those of us with qualms about this particular cycle. Again it’s male music to male words, but it's the central message that a women’s fulfillment lies in loving her husband and subsequently his child that’s particularly jarring. It can’t be ignored though that the cycle contains some stunning music and Williams and Middleton tease out a kaleidoscope of emotion from Schumann’s score (even with a slight hiccup in the fifth song, "Helft mir, ihr Schwestern" - "Help Me, Sisters"). 

Giving Brahms’s "Sapphische Ode" as an encore, Williams told us that it’s a song he’s always wanted to sing, after his experience as a young singer of having it rejected as a choice for a competition on the grounds that it is a "woman’s song". His performance of it was heartfelt and touching, and it's clear it's a work he has a strong personal connection with. 

It’s an unusual and delightful treat to hear some of these songs performed with the deeper timbre of a baritone. As Williams explained, this gender divide in the world of lieder is a relatively new convention, only becoming the norm in the past hundred years. Surely that’s doing our singers a disservice, by shutting off some incredible music to them based solely on their gender? Williams states in this programme he sought to "encourage people of any gender to feel like the whole wealth of art song belongs to them to explore". And whatever your views on sex, gender and equality, that seems unarguable.

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