RODERICK Williams returns to Sheffield this Friday to sing Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) with the Hallé and Sir Mark Elder at the City Hall.
He has, he says, sung the cycle of four songs many times and a particularly interesting performance was at the La Scala Opera House in Milan as part of double bill with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
It was put on by the La Scala ballet and the choreography by renowned Maurice Béjart included a pas de deux set to Mahler’s music danced by two male dancers.
“I was told that, where I was standing at the front of the stage on the left hand side, was Maria Callas’ favourite spot to stand,” says the baritone who used to watch the Stravinsky work from the wings.
“I have to say I have the utmost admiration for dancers; I’m not sure we singers really know the meaning of ‘work’ in comparison.”
Given the amount of opera, concert, recital and recording work, from Baroque to contemporary music, that Roddy (as Music in the Round audiences know him) undertakes, he perhaps does know the meaning.
Does he ever stop to breathe?
“Having worked as a freelance singer for a couple of decades, I feel it is only recently that I’ve realised the importance of taking time off – what people call holidays, I think!
“For me, this used to mean singing jobs in interesting countries when I would bring my family with me, but I was always leaving my wife to look after the children while I went to rehearsals or concerts.”
Now, a holiday is a holiday he says, and is looking forward to a singing-free month off this summer.
He believes the wide variety of music he sings from different eras and in different styles and languages keeps him fresh and interested, while wondering if his interest in early music stems from his days singing with I Fagiolini – the solo voice vocal ensemble on sensational form in Sheffield last Saturday.
“I am lucky that, though I sing lyric baritone repertoire, I am able to reach low enough to cope with much Baroque music at Baroque pitch – just that little bit lower than modern day pitch.
“Without that range, even Handel’s Messiah might be beyond me,” he admits.
Roddy also confesses that some opera will be forever out of his reach – the heavier Verdi, Wagner, etc – though not Janácek.
He will be back in the region with Opera North in May for a new production of the composer’s From the House of the Dead.
It is being sung in English and, in recital, he sings a considerable amount of the undervalued genre of English song, which clearly appeals to him.
He says: “It’s a vast repertoire with much fantastic music and wonderful poetry but I’ve discovered quite a prejudice amongst some song lovers in this country against English music, a perception that it doesn’t stand up in comparison to the German masters.
“I find myself probing this perception more and more; it has gradually developed into a mission for me to promote our own heritage and I am enormously lucky to have been able to record a great deal of the repertoire.”
He is quick to point out that his sense of mission with English song is not to the exclusion of all other varieties of song.
“The repertoire is far too rich to take that. My shelves at home are stacked with volumes of song, many still waiting to be studied and programmed.
“I will not have the time in my career to work on and perform the music that I currently possess. But I relish the chances I get to explore music by a great many composers and really love the music I have sung in German, Russian, French and Italian.
“As it happens, I haven’t performed Schubert’s greatest song cycles since my student days and I know that to learn them for performance now will require a great deal of time and commitment.
“In the knowledge that many of my colleagues are currently singing these cycles so brilliantly now, I find myself less motivated to do so myself.”
He is a committed performer of contemporary music in which “almost every composer seems to inhabit his or her own sub genre.”
“My training, years ago as a choral scholar, left me with some ability to pitch accurately enough within a musical snow storm and the fact that I myself compose may just help me gain an insight into the mind of the composer whose music I am trying to learn.
“A lot of it is very challenging but the harder one works at it, the greater are the rewards. I remember particularly the feeling of elation once I had scaled Tippett’s Vision of St Augustine for the Proms. Similarly, Gerald Barry’s The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit felt more like the triumph of hard work and counting under pressure.”
And, returning to Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.
“I love this cycle because it is so typical of Mahler and of Lieder, while at the same time being entirely individual.
“It’s typical in the sense that the central figure is an outcast, observing the wedding of his sweetheart to another, just as in Dichterliebe (Schumann) and finding himself almost consoled by the wonder of nature – that is until he remarks that all the world seems in harmony except him!
“I can’t begin to list the number of songs I have sung that have that theme.
“Mahler even finds his final rest under a Linden tree at the end of the cycle – I’m surprised he didn’t bump into Müller’s winter wanderer (Schubert) there!
“However, these poetic clichés, if one can call them that, elicit music from Mahler of such simple beauty and honest sentiment that they never fail but speak directly to an audience.”