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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Thomas Hardy was the poet who inspired Finzi more than any other, and here Roderick Williams frames his beautifully crafted recital with two of the cycles or ‘sets’, as Finzi preferred to call them. Before and after Summer consists of 10 Hardy songs which Finzi assembled in 1949, notably the dark, powerful setting of Channel Firing which comes as a centerpiece. Finzi may underplay the ruggedness of Hardy, the poet’s earthy qualities, but his feeling for words is always most sensitive. I said to Love is a collection of five settings assembled after the composer’s death by his widow and son, three dating from the 1930s when he was at his most creative, and two, far darker, dating from his last months before he died in 1956. Let us garlands bring, better known, consists of five Shakespeare settings, dedicated to Vaughan Williams, which bring refreshing illumination to texts set many times before, with Come away Death and Fear no more the Heat of the Sun among the finest of all Finzi songs. Firm, even tone from Roderick Williams and beautifully clear diction, with immaculate playing from Iain Burnside.

Anne Ozorio
MusicWeb International, August 2006

Roderick Williams is easily one of the finest young baritones working in this country at the moment. Yet he remains relatively unknown, hidden in the ghetto of English song, occasionally venturing into mainstream non-English opera. Nonetheless in his niche he is hard to surpass. He sings the entire range, from Purcell to new music, excelling in Britten, Vaughan Williams, Tippett, Turnage and his own compositions, which are very good. Few singers inhabit the English genre so perfectly.

Nonetheless, like all truly good artists, Williams brings something innovative to what he does. Not for him the preciousness of the quintessential "English tenor" – he’s a baritone, anyway. Nor does he sound like a voice from the past, frozen in performance styles redolent of the past; no Old Fogey he! English song isn’t merely rosy-hued nostalgia: Williams brings out its strength of character. In recital, he is wonderful. His rapport with the audience seems to inspire him to sing with real, personal vivacity - something that is hard to replicate in studio recordings.

Finzi’s songs have had a renaissance in the last few years and it is interesting to hear how interpretations have evolved from their last wave of popularity in the early 1980s. Finzi had a poet’s soul, choosing his texts with great care. His settings interpret the poems without overwhelming them. Alas, some Hardy poems don’t always lend themselves naturally to melody. Nonetheless, they evoke vivid images whose impact is perhaps greater than the words alone. Therein lies the challenge for a Finzi singer. For example, in The Self-unseeing, you don’t realise the song is about ghosts until the final line "Yet we were looking away!" This gives a singer the chance to contrast the understated music with a shock ending, though in fairness to Williams, Finzi simply scored the notes downward. For whatever reason, Williams plays down the drama, even in songs like Channel Firing where there’s plenty of licence to go for emphasis. Even when God says "No!" to the dead rising from the grave, it’s more polite than forceful. Stephen Varcoe may not have as much colour in his voice, but his Hyperion version is more vivid. Perhaps Williams, in this showcase recording, is playing safe, taking no chances. Again, though, Williams is being faithful to Finzi’s writing, whose beauties lie in understatement, and in quixotic breaking of melodic lines within lines of text. But I’m being picky, remembering Williams in recital. This is an excellent recording, superbly sung.

Williams, however, is artist enough that he can impress without obvious dramatic devices. He deftly navigates the tricky phrasing in I need not go, making the song flow naturally, yet enough for a listener to appreciate Finzi’s artful setting. Again, in For Life I had never cared greatly, he shapes the lyrical lilting lines, so they sound as unforced as in normal, but melodious conversation. Even the Shakespeare cycle Let us garlands bring, sounds fresh and modern. Williams here is authoritative – no need for mannerisms or affectation. He brings out the timeless quality in these songs which Finzi sought. This is a more refined, elegant performance than the version by Bryn Terfel, whose ventures into the territory have brought new audiences to the genre.

Williams’ gift for direct communication shows in songs like Childhood among the ferns. His subtle, rolling way with the text is exquisite, evoking the atmosphere of a balmy summer day, ferns, swaying in the gentle breeze. Ian Burnside’s playing here is particularly delicate and lovely. So are you drawn into the reverie that the final words, "this afar-noised World perambulate" cause a shudder. Similarly, in Overlooking the River, he expresses how "the swallows flew in the curves of an eight / above the river-gleam / In the wet Junes’s last beam" by stressing the upward pattern : "flew", "curves" "eight", and marking the slight gap between "wet" and "June’s". His attack on certain high notes, such as "dripped" is cautious, yet strangely, reflects the underlying tone of the song as a whole. He also illustrates accurately the quirky phrasing of lines like "where the footstep falls / with a pit-pat wearisome / in its cadency / on the flagstones drearisome" in Epeisodia. The grammar may be convoluted, but Williams makes it sound perfectly natural.

A wonderful recording showing how English song can be performed with freshness and musical intelligence.

John Quinn
MusicWeb International, August 2006

There’s a great deal to enjoy here. Roderick Williams is a splendid artist and he consistently displays sensitivity in these performances while the sheer beauty of his voice gives great pleasure. He produces his voice evenly throughout its compass. He’s free and easy at the top of his range while there’s ample potency and depth in the lower register. At all times his diction is crystal clear. He receives splendid support from Iain Burnside and the recorded sound shows both performers to good advantage.

This CD can be confidently recommended on two counts. For the newcomer to Finzi’s songs it offers an excellent and inexpensive introduction. The Finzi enthusiast will want to hear this exciting singer in some of the composer’s finest songs. So I’m happy to commend this disc.

Fanfare, November 2005

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John Quinn
MusicWeb International, August 2005

"This CD can be confidently recommended on two counts. For the newcomer to Finzi’s songs it offers an excellent and inexpensive introduction. The Finzi enthusiast will want to hear this exciting singer in some of the composer’s finest songs. So I’m happy to commend this disc. However, do try to hear Wilson-Johnson, who dares to be different and in so doing offers valuable insights to complement the more "conventional" approach encountered in the fine accounts by either Stephen Varcoe or Roderick Williams."

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, June 2005

"Cannily selected as an hour-long recital the principal competition to Williams and Burnside’s triptych of Finzi’s settings comes from Varcoe and Benson on a long established Hyperion disc. The exception is Let Us Garlands Bring, not sung by Varcoe and Benson but which Terfel has contributed in two different recordings, one for Decca and the other for DG. The orchestrated setting of the same cycle has been recorded by Christopher Maltman for Hyperion - though that is less of a direct comparison than the two Terfels.

I have to admit a certain amount of surprise that the current discography is so sparse in respect of I Said To Love and Before and After Summer. The former is particularly attractive lyrically whilst the latter, if uneven, offers one of Finzi’s biggest and most powerful settings, Channel Firing. Nevertheless Williams and Burnside prove perceptive if, from time to time, reticent ambassadors. This reservation tends to apply more to Williams than Burnside; in For Life I Had Never Cared Greatly the climax is not quite dramatic or flaring enough – there’s not that sense of manly braggadocio one gets from Varcoe – and in this song, especially, one notices how Williams has a tendency to role his "R" to combustion point. The song that gives its name to the cycle I Said To Love illustrates other cultivated intimacies explored by this duo; Williams doesn’t have a stentorian voice, and he abjures interventionist colouring of the texts; the voice is lighter, tighter and more focusedly intimate than Varcoe’s; Burnside uses less pedal than Benson and the result is a subtly different kind of interpretation.

Such things matter perhaps more in the Shakespeare settings, Let Us Garlands Bring. Williams brings a smoothness and equability to these settings – straightforward, attractive, and unselfconscious. Turn to, say, John Carol Case however in his classic disc of the orchestral version of the cycle (not currently available) and we find a singer responding with constant colour and inflexion, with superfine awareness of the lyrics. I have to say I find Williams rather inert hereabouts. In Fear no more the heat o’ the sun the register change seems a mite effortful but more problematic is the relatively bland word painting; Carol Case may have sometimes painted with a broad brush but his thunder and lightning flash remain imperishable memories. A contemporary such as Terfel has inherited something of Carol Case’s rich pointing and in his recordings he’s to be preferred as well.

Before and After Summer sees this pairing consistently slower than Varcoe and Benson. I liked Burnside "guns" in Channel Firing, though Williams doesn’t lighten his voice for significant parts of the text, such as lines like "our coffins" – as Varcoe was at pains to do. In the title song however Williams’ noble straightness pays dividends even though I can’t help feel that Varcoe and Benson made more sense of the song’s structure (it can easily sound broken backed).

Much here is thoughtfully and attractively done and at its price bracket you won’t be short-changed. Burnside is invariably elucidatory but for a deeper revelation of these songs I would prefer Varcoe/Benson in the Hardy songs and Terfel in the Shakespeare."

Opera News, April 2005

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Classic FM

Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside tell the poignant story of war in this compelling musical performance.

Flanders’ killing fields accounted for the deaths of Finzi’s father and his first music teacher, their futile sacrifice profoundly affecting the composer’s world-view. Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside expose the pain of loss carried by many of Finzi’s songs. Their partnership blends refined musicality with a shared love of words, delivering compelling results in the Hardy settings of I Said to Love and, above all, the Wessex poet’s Channel Firing. A high level of artistic quality at a giveaway price. © Classic FM

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