A Shropshire Lad: English Songs Orchestrated by Roderick Williams review – every word perfectly coloured, every phrase exactly weighted | Classical music

As well as being one of Britain’s leading baritones, Roderick Williams is also a composer, mainly of much admired choral music. The twin tracks of his career come together in this collection, in which Williams is the soloist in 21 songs by British composers that, at the suggestion of the conductor Mark Elder, he has orchestrated for the Hallé himself.

The artwork for A Shropshire Lad: English Songs Orchestrated by Roderick Williams

At the heart of the disc are two song cycles, George Butterworth’s six Songs from AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The House of Life. But otherwise Williams’s selection ranges widely. There are a couple of songs by John Ireland (one of them his well known Masefield setting, Sea Fever), and single settings from seven other composers, ranging from Rebecca Clarke, Ernest Farrar, William Denis Browne and Ina Boyle (who was emphatically Irish, despite the title of this collection) to Ruth Gipps, Madeleine Dring and James Burton.

Almost a century separates the birthdate of the oldest composer represented here (Vaughan Williams, born 1872) from the youngest (Burton, 1974), but the stylistic range of these songs is never as wide as that chronology might suggest, and indeed emphasises how long Vaughan Williams’s influence persisted in British music as well as offering a reminder of just how high Butterworth’s settings set the bar for subsequent generations of song composers.

The orchestration of all these songs is as careful and perceptive as one would expect from a musician who interprets them with such finesse. Crucially he recognises that less often means more, and that a touch of colour here or there can be more effective than anything gaudy. His treatment of the Butterworth songs may include an occasional nod towards Butterworth’s own orchestral A Shropshire Lad – Rhapsody, for instance, but the touches he adds are entirely personal.

Williams matches that fastidiousness with performances that are a reminder that no other singer today inhabits this repertoire so completely and movingly. Every word is perfectly coloured, every phrase exactly weighted. There aren’t too many duds among this selection, but even those are illuminated by the way in which he presents them.

This week’s other pick

Two British composers in the pastoral tradition not included in the Williams collection are Herbert Howells and Ian Venables, who are brought together on a Delphian disc featuring the choir of Merton College, Oxford, conducted by Benjamin Nicholas. Three of Howells’s anthems with orchestral accompaniments are paired with Venables’s 2018 Requiem, which was originally composed with organ, but is performed here in a newly commissioned orchestral version.

Venables makes his own selection from the standard requiem mass, omitting all of the Dies Irae apart from the final Pie Jesu, and ending his sequence with the Lux Aeterna, so that his requiem becomes a work of consolation more than anything else.


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