Katherine Williams soprano
Ben Marsden piano
St Machar's Cathedral, Old Aberdeen
Friday, 28th October 2022
Sir James MacMillan - Three Scottish Songs
Roger Bevan Williams - Animal Verses (World Première)
Judith Weir - The song of a girl ravished away by the fairies in South Uist (From Songs from the Exotic)
Dr Roger Williams MBE has been a popular yearly contributor to the soundfestival as a performer on organ. This year, his gift to the Festival was as one of three composers in a concert of vocal music. Friday’s performance by soprano Katherine Williams with pianist Ben Marsden began with ‘Three Scottish Songs’ by Scotland’s premier composer Sir James MacMillan.
The three songs, settings of poems by Scots poet William Soutar (1898 – 1943), were performed as a single composition, each song flowing uninterrupted to the next. The first two songs were a masterly marriage between folk-style writing and classical music. Katherine Williams was the ideal choice of soprano for these songs with a voice that was smooth, clean and unwavering. You do get more ‘fruity’ soprano voices, excellent in operatic or full blown classical songs, but not for Friday’s programme. The true flair of MacMillan’s writing in these songs was in his masterly minimal use of piano accompaniment.
In the first song, originally entitled ‘The Tryst’ the soprano has full freedom to expound her text in flowing expressive song while the piano, so tastefully played by Ben Marsden, added little touches of colour here and there until the final verse where he played a lovely harp-like accompaniment.
The barest accompaniment had a similar effect in the second song, ‘The Ballad’ in which Katherine portrayed in song the sadness of a young girl whose lover has gone missing at sea. There is a whole literature of such songs in the folk world, some of which I have heard at family parties when I was young.
The last of the three songs was very different. Not perhaps so much operatic as filmic. MacMillan paints a picture of the bombing of Guernica in 1937. The music was punctuated by pregnant pauses which raised the almost unbearable feeling of tension before the attack. Then, with a crashing bass chord on the piano, allowed to resonate to fade, the bombing began. The conclusion had a whole series of such chords.
In a different way, Katherine’s voice was equally well suited to the five Animal Verses composed with her voice in mind by her husband, Dr Roger Bevan Williams. The clarity of Katherine’s singing underlined the colourful expressiveness of each of the songs. The five birds or animals described in the verses of five very different individual poets were colourfully depicted both by voice and piano. ‘Sea-hawk’ or osprey set words by the American poet Richard Eberhart (1904- 2005). ‘A Riddle’ (also called An Epitaph) by William Cowper (1731 – 1800) was a fast movement, followed by the slow movement ‘The Sloth’ to words by a second American poet, Theodore Roethke (1908 – 1963). ‘To Mrs Reynold’s Cat’ had a spicing of humour which you don’t usually expect from John Keats (1795 – 1821). Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892) provided the text of the final song ‘The Blackbird’
‘Sea-hawk’ opened with declamatory piano chords far apart thus depicting flight and open air. There were piano runs also suggesting flying skyward swoops and the vocal music very much took flight in the most expressive way.
‘A Riddle’ spilled out its words in bursts of rapid succession, exactly what you would expect from someone telling you a mysterious quip, finally letting us know just at the end that the animal in this song is a dog, a pointer. Pointers are involved in the killing but they don’t actually do it themselves.
The slow piano and voice in ‘The Sloth’ painted this unusual animal before our eyes in the words of the poet, and through our ears so expressively in the music.
In ‘Mrs Reynold’s Cat’ the music described the two contrasting feelings in both rhythm and melody, perfectly depicting the bipolar nature of the cat, she can be the nice soft pussy wanting to be stroked gently on your lap before going outside to terrorise birds and small animals with her sharp claws.
I loved the final song, ‘The Blackbird’ in which the music, both voice and piano, depicted both the singing of the blackbird and its to and fro hippety-hopping in the garden.
Just before the performance Dr Williams told us that his songs were based on a twelve tone row, but not used in a serial way. His music did not sound like Schoenberg, not like Debussy either but in a sense he was closer to Debussy in the way in which he was so skilled at painting pictures with his music. It was indeed very pictorial.
Formally too, it was fascinating with its use of contrasting tempi between different songs and in the way in which there were elements of musical repetition occurring across the work as a whole, binding it together. It is certainly not an easy work, but congratulations to Katherine and Ben for convincing us that it was easy as a result of the relaxed and familiar way in which they were able to perform it.
The final work in the concert was one of the songs from Judith Weir’s ‘Songs from the Exotic’. In a way, it took us back to the beginning of the concert because Weir balances voice with piano so cleverly. There was also much repetition in the vocal writing. That fitted in perfectly with the folk-song idea. Like the other two composers in the concert, Weir is brilliant at painting pictures and stories with her music.