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A Twitcher's Delight

Roderick Williams standing against wall

According to the RSPB, two-thirds of the British public found solace in birdwatching during lockdown, writes Natasha Loges. Might this signal the birth of a new generation of twitchers? 

If so, they will be delighted by tonight’s affectionate and thought-provoking celebration of birds – and a few other creatures. The programme combines French and English song from the 20th into the 21st century. A composer himself, baritone Roderick Williams feels at home with this music. In his recitals, he always tries to strike a balance between the familiar and the new, the consoling and the challenging, and tonight’s programme is no exception.

We begin with Gabriel Fauré’s late cycle Mirages, four songs evoking natural themes. Fauré set these poems by Renée Bonnière, the Baronne Antoine de Brimont, in the aftermath of World War I. An idealisation of the soul as a swan launches our evening, followed by watery reflections, then a depiction of a nocturnal garden, and finally, a lilting, erotically tinged dance. The 74-year-old Fauré gave the first performance with his protégée Madeleine Grey, although he was, by then, completely deaf. The songs are a distillation of his spare, effortless late style.

Events take a darker turn with Judith Weir’s cycle The Voice of Desire, composed for mezzo-soprano Alice Coote in 2003. Robert Bridges’ poem ‘The Voice of Desire’ reveals the hidden undertones of the nightingales’ song. Similarly, in ‘White Eggs in the Bush’, a translation from Hunter Poems of the Yoruba, the cuckoo and coucal foretell war and bloodshed in their song. ‘Written on Terrestrial Things’, a setting of Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’, offers respite as the bird’s cheery song emerges from the bleak winter. In ‘Sweet Little Red Feet’, (John Keats’s ‘Song’), the poet wonders why his beloved dove has died. As Weir puts it, ‘the nightingale lives in a darker emotional world than we can imagine; the blue cuckoo knows that the wars we blunder into will bring destruction; the thrush sings joyfully whilst we are mentally blank; the dove has died rather than face emotional suffocation from its adoring owner.’

Two cycles are at the heart of the rest of the programme: Ravel’s Histoires naturelles and Ryan Wigglesworth’s new cycle Vignettes de Jules Renard. Histoires naturelles is a 1906 cycle of settings of Jules Renard. We coolly observe a vain peacock, an obsessively tidy cricket, a swan baffled by his own reflection, a kingfisher (sung from the perspective of an admiring fisherman), and a belligerent guinea-fowl. Ravel dedicated ‘The Swan’ to the colourful saloniste Misia Godebska. Early listeners were outraged by the evocation of the popular style of the café concert in this music, but Roderick Williams loves the composer’s ‘dry, droll, farmyard language’. 

The seed for Wigglesworth’s Vignettes de Jules Renard was planted when Williams encountered his dazzling vocal writing in the 2017 opera The Winter's Tale. The cycle builds on the Renard texts Ravel set and shares the earlier composer’s pictorial approach. We take a detailed look at the humble chicken as she pecks, drinks and eats. The squat, sedate Toad is dismissed as ugly, but instantly returns the insult. The grasshopper is the focus of the final song; we admire his fearlessness and impressive leaps but recall his fragility when he detaches a leg whilst escaping. 

Williams’s lifelong relationship with English song is showcased in the second half of this evening’s programme. He is deeply committed to communicating with English-speaking audiences. ‘It is my intention to be understood, in real time, as I sing’. Musical appeal also matters; Williams champions the British songwriters of the twentieth century, many of whom wrote beautiful melodies which Williams finds ‘great to sing and relax into.’ 

A cuckoo’s song threads through Gurney’s ebullient ‘Spring’, from his Five Elizabethan Songs. In ‘Walking Song’, the poet strides through London, but longs to be a rook flying over his Gloucestershire village; he settles for loud cawing! Irish composer Ina Boyle follows with her lavish ‘The Joy of Earth’ before Moeran’s gently melancholy 'When smoke stood up from Ludlow', recounting an exchange with a wise blackbird. Britten’s ‘Proud Songsters’ muses on the miracle of new life, as the poet contemplates the young birds who did not exist a year ago. It contrasts with the beautiful Welsh folk-song arrangement, ‘The Ash Grove’, a tale of grief accompanied by the fluting blackbird. But in Finzi’s melancholy ‘Before and After Summer’, the bird is unnamed – and mute. We close with Adrian Williams's Red Kite Flying; this setting of the composer’s own text captures the quicksilver energy of the kite as it soars above earthly suffering. 

A Twitcher’s Delight seeks to draw us back into a close relationship with nature, offering loving observations of the details and quirks of the creatures with whom we share the world. 


© Natasha Loges

Programme and performers

Gabriel Fauré Mirages

1. Cygne sur l'eau (Swan on the water)

2. Reflets dans l'eau (Reflections on the water)

3. Jardin nocturne (Nocturnal garden)

4. Danseuse (Dancing girl)

Judith Weir The Voice of Desire

1. The Voice of Desire

2. White Eggs in the Bush

3. Written on Terrestrial Things

4. Sweet Little Red Feet

Maurice Ravel Histoire Naturelles

1. Le paon (The peacock)

2. Le grillon (The cricket)

3. Le cygne (The swan)

4. Le martin-pêcheur (The kingfisher)

5. La pintade (The guineafowl)

Ryan Wigglesworth Vignettes de Jules Renard (world premiere)

1. La Poule (The Hen)

2. Le Crapaud (The Toad)

3. La Sauterelle (The Grasshopper)

Ivor Gurney 'Spring' from Five Elizabethan Songs

Ivor Gurney Walking Song

Ina Boyle The Joy of Earth

EJ Moeran No 1 'When smoke stood up from Ludlow' from Ludlow Town

Benjamin Britten 'Proud Songsters' from Winter Words

Welsh Traditional The Ash Grove (arr Benjamin Britten)

Gerald Finzi 2. 'Before and After Summer' from Before and After Summer

Adrian Williams Red Kite Flying


Roderick Williams baritone

Andrew West piano

Part one

Part two

Artist biographies