I seem to be spending a lot of time at Howard Assembly Room lately, for which I am truly grateful, especially when I get to see some of the country’s, nay world’s, best musicians and singers up close and personal.

Such was the case last night when I witnessed a supreme performance by baritone Roderick Williams OBE accompanied by pianist Joseph Middleton. We were treated to a programme called Winter Journey which is one of Schubert’s Lieder sung in English after being translated from the original German by Jeremy Sams. The lyrics are poems by Wilhelm Müller and the work’s proper name is Winterreise, written in 1827.

As is customary we were given an insight into the work by Mr Williams who asked if anyone in the audience was fluent in German, not many hands were raised, he then enquired as to who was familiar with this work which gave a 50/50 split. Finally came the question as to who had never heard the lieder before, which is the only time I hoisted my mitt, reassuringly I was not the only one.

Roderick Williams is a very good speaker as well as a top singer and took us through the story linking the twenty-four songs. He summed it up by saying it was about a young man who falls in love but she ends it and he leaves town. There is obviously a bit more to it than that as we were to discover.

Joseph Middleton – piano, with Roderick Williams

He said that the translation is superbly done and keeps to the essence of the German original while still managing to get the lines to rhyme, adding that the journey the young man takes is one of observation and comment rather than flowery poetry. He sees trees, birds, streams, etc and notes how they fit into his life. The first song gives the background and the subsequent ones, his journey.

Schubert is renown for writing melodic tunes and this work is no exception. It got me thinking that breaking up from a relationship seems to spawn the most tuneful songs, you only have to think about Yesterday by Paul McCartney, or I’m Not in Love from 10cc. This is not in the same category as the three-minute pop song though, it is more of a concept album!

OK, so the young man gets into a relationship with a woman who reciprocates to such an extent that her parents agree to the romance and all seems well. For some reason, which I think we all can work out by the end of the evening, she changes her mind and dumps him. As he is not from the area and feels no affinity with the town, he decides to set off on foot and go wherever life takes him. He avoids the main roads and explores the lesser tracks observing the things around him.

I think that you know it isn’t your day when you get dumped in the depths of winter but this seems to embolden the traveller who trudges through the snow with his tears freezing as they fall. He sees a frozen stream which reminds him of his plight, cold on the outside and in turmoil underneath.

His journey continues and he gets more miserable by the step. When he is not experiencing the cold inner misery, he is shunning any positive thoughts. He comes across his favourite linden tree which he feels is offering a welcome and shelter, but he walks straight past it into the teeth of a gale which blows his hat off.

He encounters a will-o’-the-wisp which entices him into deep, rocky chasms and consoles himself that every river will reach the sea, but that won’t do, so he adds that every sorrow will reach its grave. Even when he sees a clear blue sky, a single cloud appears so he identifies with that. He is befriended and followed by a bird, not a dove or a robin, but a crow!

Just when you think things couldn’t get any more miserable he stumbles upon a graveyard which appears to him like a tavern with the plants growing over the entrance acting as a pub sign. He explores it and is dismayed to find that there is no room, as they are all taken.

I will spare you the rest of the tale but – Spoiler Alert! – he finally meets a friend, a hurdy-gurdy man. Of course they don’t team up and go dancing into the sunset because the player is in as bad a state as our hero. He can’t play his instrument properly as is hands are frozen, his bowl is empty of coins and he is being growled at by the local stray dogs. A bromance made in Heaven – or Hell.

All in all, this makes Leonard Cohen sound like Freddie and the Dreamers but the irony is that, when not singing, Roderick Williams never stopped smiling. He has a great sense of humour and seems like a genuinely happy chap. I suppose that he is only the conveyor of other people’s thoughts and feelings, which he expresses brilliantly both vocally and in his body language, but I am surprised that performing this work a number of times, something he has done in both English and German, has not left its mark.

Joseph Middleton’s accompaniment was superb, being just the right balance between supporting the singer and conveying the tunes.

Enjoying the well deserved applause at the end of the concert

This was my first experience of Lieder but I hope to give it another shot in the future in the expectation that the next work is a little more uplifting than this piece but, if not, I have always got my Leonard Cohen albums to cheer me up.

You might be interested in 2022 Leeds Lieder Festival which runs from Thursday 28th April until Sunday 1st May at Howard Assembly Room https://leedslieder.org.uk/leeds-lieder-2022-festival/

To see what else is on at Howard Assembly Room please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/event-tag/har/

Feature image provided by Opera North, other photographs by Stan Graham

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