Williams Sings Beethoven & Schubert

cover - CHAN 20126

BEETHOVEN: An die ferne geliebte. SCHUBERT: Schwangesang, D. 957 / Roderick Williams, bar; Iain Burnside, pno / Chandos CHAN-20126

My regular readers know that I stay away from reviewing standard repertoire from any era as much as I can because, in my view, the greatest performances of that music have already been recorded and few if any modern musicians really have anything new to say about it. I think that, for the most part, the modern recordings of old stuff that I do review are those that I believe do have something new and exciting to offer.

This CD is one of those. Although neither work on this disc have exactly been neglected, An die ferne geliebte—the first continuous song cycle ever written—is not as frequent a visitor to concert halls or records as are some of Beethoven’s other songs, and for whatever reason Schubert’s Schwangesang is not usually recorded in its entirety, but here they are paired on this new Chandos disc.

What I found appealing about these performances was not necessarily Roderick Williams’ voice per se. Although he has a pleasant timbre, the voice sounds a bit constricted at times and has an intermittent flutter, neither of which appealed to me, but what I found interesting was his very conversational manner of singing. It is as if he were speaking the lyrics in pitch and rhythm. For some listeners, this will possibly not appeal too much, as they prefer hearing the music “sung out” as if he were regaling you with the Pagliacci Prologue or “Eri tu” from Un ballo in maschera, but for me singing out only works when the singer has both a rich voice and interpretive skills, and this almost never happens.

As is usual for Chandos, there is a lot of reverb on this record, and for a single singer with piano this becomes tiresome to listen to. I’m all for having a bit of space around singers and musicians—I am by no means a fan of airless, dry acoustics such as those inflicted on Toscanini’s performances and recordings by RCA Victor (at least up until 1949)—but going too far the other way is also annoying, and to be honest I think that not only Williams’ voice but also Iain Burnside’s piano would have benefitted from less echo and bit closer sound. But since I am a small fish in the relatively large pond of reviewers, I doubt that Chandos cares what I say. Perhaps you don’t either.

Another thing I liked about these performances was the complete unity between singer and accompanist. Even in the superb version of this cycle by Peter Schreier, his accompanist, Walter Olbertz, isn’t quite as involved in this cycle as is Iain Burnside. This is a perfect partnership.

And oddly, as soon as one switches from Beethoven to Schubert, lo and behold, the acoustic is closer and less over-resonant…I would even say, perfect, and this closer sound gives exactly the right feeling of intimacy to these songs. Once again, Williams sings with a semi-parlando style, not ignoring or omitting any of the written notes but taking each in stride as he “speaks” the lyrics to you. Older listeners may thing that this is also a description of the way Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sang Schubert, but although Fischer-Dieskau was an excellent communicator it is not exactly the same. They have similarities in the way they sing their soft phrases, but in the louder ones Fischer-Dieskau “bound” his phrases like a conventional singer whereas Williams maintains the intimacy that he brought to the soft ones. Perhaps this is a hard thing to describe in words, but as soon as you hear it I think you’ll understand what I mean. Perhaps the best example in this series is “Frühlingssehnsucht,” but there are others as well, among them the well-worn “Ständchen” in which Williams’ voice matches the semi-detaché style of the piano’s bass line. He also sings his mordents (turns) perfectly, something that a large number of singers in this song completely ignore.

I’ve always been fond of Marian Anderson’s old recording of “Aufenthalt,” but here Williams makes just as fine an impression with his far less rich-sounding voice—again, through his manner of accenting both words and music—and I’ve never heard anyone sing “In der ferne” as well as he. Perhaps the only slight disappointment was “Der Atlas,” the one song in this set that absolutely demands a large, biting voice. Heinrich Schlusnus sang it to perfection. Williams has an interesting take on it, particularly in the slower middle section, but the opening and closing pages really do call for an “Eri tu” kind of voice. Yet his voice and style are absolutely perfect for “Am Meer,” and his “Doppelgänger” has exactly the right feeling to it.

This is clearly a new and different “take” on these well-worn songs, and I give Williams all the credit in the world for coming up with something different that is also quite valid. Well worth hearing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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