Either I am a sucker for late-Romantic song or perhaps for histrionic fairytales of derring-do and blushing maidens, but I for one was enthralled by Brahms’s ‘Die schöne Magelone’ on first hearing. It was presented in such a way as to grip the audience from the outset: a narrator set the scene and linked the songs, all of this in an exciting, modern English précis, while the songs themselves were performed in German by a range of young singers and pianists, each one encapsulating the heightened emotion of each piece. I left the recital with the sort of heart-pounding best described by the likes of Berlioz.
When the opportunity came for me to learn these songs, I relished the chance, finding along the way that Brahms’s glorious, sweeping vocal lines really suited my voice. I revelled in the ardour of emotion in Tieck’s lyrics, channelling my inner Romantic adolescent. Pianist Roger Vignoles enlisted the wonderful Julia Somerville to narrate between the songs using Roger’s own reduction of Tieck’s story and the three of us, like troubadours of old, presented this epic fairytale in concerts around the country.
It is easy for us sophisticates in the twenty-first century to treat such material with a certain hauteur, or even ridicule. But what I noticed in concert, especially as Julia’s narration unfolded, giving me a chance slyly to observe the audience, is that people were very quickly spellbound by the tale. All of us, I observed, love to be told a story.
I am hugely grateful to Champs Hill for allowing me the privilege of recording these songs and the Vier Ernste Gesänge. When the sessions were all but finished, I begged for the indulgence of those present and asked to record Roger’s English narration, pretty much on a whim. I hoped it might help persuade some audiences, perhaps unfamiliar with these songs and especially out of their context, that this really is a most terrific and enchanting work. I hoped it might connect with the wide-eyed child in us all, anyone who cannot resist “Once upon a time...”.
Roderick Williams is one of the most sought-after baritones of his generation and enjoys relationships with all the major UK and European opera houses. He has sung world premieres of operas by, among others, David Sawer, Sally Beamish, Michael van der Aa, Robert Saxton and Alexander Knaifel as well as roles by Mozart, Britten and Strauss. He has performed concert repertoire with many of the leading orchestras and ensembles internationally including the Berlin and New York Philharmonic Orchestras, London Symphony Orchestra and all of the BBC Orchestras. In demand as a recitalist, he has performed at major venues worldwide and festival appearances have included BBC Proms (Last Night 2014), Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Aldeburgh and Melbourne. In 2016 he won the RPS Singer award and the prize for best choral composition at the British Composer Awards. He was awarded the OBE for services to music in 2017 and was one of the featured soloists at the coronation of King Charles III in 2023.