It may have been a dismal evening in Liverpool – in more ways than one – but with strict Covid measures in place the only risk of contagion at the Philharmonic Hall was from Roderick Williams’ infectious enthusiasm.
The British baritone - and this season's Artist in Residence - beamed as he told the Phil faithful (masked and dotted in bubbles around the auditorium): “How wonderful to see you here. What a huge pleasure it is to be performing live music for you in this extraordinary hall.”
There was even, dare I say it, a fist clenched in triumph over the silent enemy which has kept concert halls and performers the length and breadth of the country silent for so many months.
But actually, the pleasure was all ours as Williams, joined on stage by award-winning fellow baritone Gareth Brynmor John and pianist Christopher Glynn, presented an hour of exquisite, entertaining and touching English song.
The common thread in the compact but busy programme was Thomas Hardy, whose “rich sea of poetry” as Williams put it was set to music by composers like Bax, Britten, Ireland, Weir and Finzi.
Finzi’s 10-part song cycle Before and After Summer, with its Jacques-like ‘seven ages of man’ structure, was woven through the hour, interspersed with complementary pieces which in the hands of Williams and John – alternating centre stage – were playful and heart-wrenchingly poignant in turn.
Williams’ voice has a wonderful creamy timbre and he is a captivating and elegant storyteller-in-song, bringing real colour and nuance to the expression of Hardy’s deep thoughts, but also – as in John Ireland’s Great Things – relishing the moments of comedy in nimble (but never over-egged) fashion.
Above: Gareth Brynmor John, Christopher Glynn and Roderick Williams. Top: Roderick Williams. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega
He also evidently relished lines like ‘The Century’s corpse outleant; His crypt the cloudy canopy’ in Judith Weir’s Written on Terrestrial Things, a crisply-delivered alliteration, while there was a lovely sinuous savouring of Finzi’s phrasing in the disquieting Channel Firing.
John, appearing alongside him on stage as part of the Momentum our future, now project, proved a perfect vocal foil. His is a powerful baritone, bursting forth to the furthest corners of the auditorium, and has a warm tone along with a satisfyingly rich and rounded lower register.
His performance grew and blossomed as the evening progressed, each piece more expressive than the next.
Christopher Glynn meanwhile offered delicate and subtle accompaniment in the Finzi cycle, along with some crisp, rollicking finger work through the Ireland and vivid, painterly playing in Britten’s Proud Songsters.