Roderick Williams and Andrew West offered an eclectic and thought-provoking programme including Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben (A woman’s love and life) imagined by a male composer and a male poet, Adalbert von Chamisso. The performers posed many questions as they investigated the role of women as subject, object and composers of song, including Clara Schumann (Robert’s wife), Sally Beamish and Rhian Samuel.
Themes of love, tortured and flirtatious, dominated the opening selection by Brahms, of which Williams gave a wonderfully natural and direct interpretation. The narrative of each piece was deeply persuasive and theatrically engaging, West’s accompaniments detailed and sparkling; in Mädchenlied the spinning-wheel purred into life. Clara Schumann’s setting of Rückert’s Liebst du um Schönheit matches the verse in wit and ardour, and with unusual emotional freedom for 1841, the descriptive piano coda as thoughtful and imaginative as anything by Robert.
Three late miniatures by Brahms followed: snapshots of the Swallow, Salamander and the Nightingale, replete with longing, lust and sadness. The mood expanded and darkened for Herbert Howells’s masterpiece King David, in which Williams’s vocal line wove around the gorgeous chords and arpeggios mimicking the sound of ancient harps. Sally Beamish’s Four Songs from Hafez introduced exquisite exoticism. Landscapes of roses and peacocks combined with glimpses of the beloved is conveyed in touching descending figures, as the lover’s hair comes loose and tumbles down. The invocation of the Hoopoe is voiced plaintively in the final number.
Rhian Samuel’s Summer Songs are close-textured and chromatic evocations of night and a dragonfly in the sun. These vivid settings brought tonal freshness before Frauenliebe und -leben, performed unusually by a male singer. Williams’s sweet phrasing and expressive power was entirely convincing and West’s contribution nuanced, crisp and dream-like by turns. Williams and West certainly made a strong argument for this experiment, communicating the deepest and most profound of emotions through sincerity, skill and openheartedness.