Roderick Williams and Andrew West: Birdsong review

Birdsong, or … songs for birds. There are two threads running through this recital recording from the baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Andrew West. One is that their programme is punctuated by songs about nightingales, swallows, peacocks and hoopoes. The other, more intriguingly, is that many of them are usually sung by higher voices. Williams is trying to loosen ideas of who should sing what, and simultaneously conducting an experiment: does it change the song if the singer is not a woman but a man?

There is a degree of ventriloquism at work in any song, of any era, in which, as Williams puts it, “male poets and composers have sought to illustrate what they imagine goes through the hearts and minds of young women”. Williams and West give us the most famous such song cycle, Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, and their performance is intelligently put together, with all Williams’s characteristic attention to text and tone. Yet there’s something about the pitch, the way a baritone’s voice sits squarely in the middle of the piano lines, that makes the whole thing sound a little too comfortable; emotions that can seem transcendent in the best performances by women are more earthbound here. That musical element seems to make more difference than any changed perspective to do with the texts – with the exception of the penultimate song, which is unequivocally about the joy of breastfeeding, and which Williams and West wisely dial back a little.

The other songs, often with a less specifically feminine narrator, may not sound revelatory, but they are beautifully done – Williams is a singer who just gets better and better. The way he spins velvety lines in Brahms’s An die Nachtigall and Sapphische Ode, making every syllable meaningful, is something to savour. And it’s not all male composers – as well as a single song by Clara Schumann, there’s Sally Beamish’s Four Songs from Hafez, written in 2007, evoking birds and fish in piquant, humid music that’s a good foil for the 19th-century works.

This week’s other pick showcases percussion and piano works by the US composer Joan Tower, recorded for the first time. Its title comes from Strike Zones, the muscular percussion concerto she wrote in 2001 vir Evelyn Glennie; alongside the Albany Symphony and conductor David Alan Miller, Glennie gives a dynamic performance here, and Blair McMillen makes sparkling work of the mini piano concerto Still/Rapids.

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