Review: Gorgeous music on an engaging night in Stratford

Roderick Williams
Roderick Williams

Clive Peacock reviews Roderick Williams and Emily Levy in Lads and Lasses at Stratford Music Festival

Fresh from his BBC series A Choral History of Britain, Roddy Williams returned to his successful work with Schubert’s great song cycles at the Stratford Music Festival. Accompanied by the utterly charming Susie Allan, Williams created a ‘Lads and Lasses’ evening, cleverly incorporating a 21st century female response to Schubert’s 19th century efforts. With six poems by Rommi Smith, Emily Levy explores the miller’s daughter’s hopes and aspirations in an intimate piece given its world première in Stratford.

Williams took his audience to the brook where he introduced the young love-seeking journeyman miller; the young man follows the brook to the mill and ultimately falls in love with the miller’s daughter. With much bewitching charm Williams then chose four of Gurney’s touching and beautiful songs about the countryside and wanderings before returning to the Schubert initiative with the third of the songs, ‘Stop!’ as the journeyman decides to end his wanderings. The collaboration with Susie Allan is wonderful – well, she is a former Professor of Accompaniment at the RCM – and Williams is clearly enjoying a very, very busy time in his life with ROH performances as Papageno in Flute. He’s even found time to commission a piece by Cecilia McDowall, At the Wheel. This turned out to be a pleasing, contemporary take on the eleventh song of the cycle, Mine!.

The most elaborate collaboration of the evening was with Emily Levy’s musical interpretations of poems by librettist Rommi Smith. With both artists in the audience for this world première, Stratford’s refreshed Music Festival enjoyed a remarkable coup: Williams’ impeccable clarity and fine baritone voice. The presentation necessitated the use of an ebow, an electromagnetic string driver, usually for guitars, to amplify and induce forced string vibrations. It seemed to work once Susie Allan had found the appropriate piano string and successfully attached the device to the instrument. Williams’ remarkable instrument was unmoved by this.

His recital ended with a return to Schubert‘s cycle. By now the once romantic journeyman miller despairs when he discovers the miller’s daughter is in love with a hunter. He drowns in the brook; Williams sings the final lullaby, The Brook’s Lullaby, with the gorgeous repetition of three distinctive chords and one of the most engaging events of the festival received a rapturous ovation.