‘Schubert’s ‘Wintereisse’ intimidates me, there’s a fear that I may not be able to offer anything new,’ says British Baritone Roderick Williams. After enjoying Williams’ haunting spin on Ravel’s ‘Songs of Madagascar’ in the AFCM’s ‘Governor’s Gala,’ that seems highly unlikely. And but seven days ago, Williams commanded a garlanded ‘Wintereisse’ in a new, English version in Yorkshire’s Ryedale Festival with pianist Christopher Glynn. Tonight, he presents an alternative version of the same.
Williams is a regular on the International Festival circuit but he is chuffed by Townsville’s Chamber Music Festival and its views of Castle Hill, the ocean, palm trees and tropical climate. He finds the best way to care for his voice while in this garrison town is to take a stroll to the Strand each morning. And there, he has no qualm about submerging himself into the water – as there is in England – no need at all to brace for the sting of the water’s chilling temperature. And tomorrow, it will be a first to catch a two-hour boat ride, with his audience, and sing sea shanties on a pristine beach on an isolated, uninhabited Island under a clear blue sky.
Artistic Director Piers Lane’s team enjoy the Festival despite its legendary work load. Forty musicians deliver 100 pieces of music in just over a week. Today for instance Williams has four rehearsals for other concerts later in the week, Mahler’s hefty ‘Ruckert Leider’ included, before he sings Schubert’s intensely emotional ‘Wintereisse’ tonight with UK pianist Andrew West and narrator Brendan O’ Connor. ‘Wintereisse’ must be the climbing Mount Everest equivalent in the realm of art song.
‘Apparently, the busyness is refreshing, there’s no time for introspection, or, to be precious and emotionally prepare for Schubert’s bleak tale of a heartbroken wanderer, who trudges across an icy, barren landscape which mirrors his own despair. The irony of a snow-carpeted setting is not lost on Williams who revels in the balmy, breeze-blown clime of North Queensland’s ‘coldest’ season.
Williams is of the view that anyone can enjoy this song cycle whether they are musically trained or not.
‘Even if someone is not a German speaker, there’s a folk-like, storytelling quality. On a purely musical level Schubert’s melodies are direct,’ he says. ‘There’s no fuss, these leider get under your skin even if, you expect a wall of high art. And modern listeners are used to getting cues about what’s going on through film music.’
‘The Fatal Chance’ devised by Sean Street and Robert Murray, seems like a tremendous way for the audience, as it will be for me, to get inside the music. While I’m singing in German the songs, with imagery vividly enshrined in the piano part, will be interspersed by readings from Scott of the Antartic’s diary.
‘Gefrorne Tranen’ is a riff on frost and ice about which Williams says, ‘I was talking to an Australian who said that her perception of snow tends to come off a Christmas card full of joy and sparkle and there’s no sense of snow as a threat. So I thought I’d translate in my mind ‘snow’ and ‘ice’ into an Australian drought with its ‘sand’ and ‘dust’ that can endanger lives.’
‘There are illustrations of Schubert surrounded by people yet at heart he is lonely, an archetypal loner and this comes across in the music. Funny thing is, that after hearing the ‘Wintereisse’ for all its gloom and drama and exploration of such a dark, bleak place, people come out afterwards elated, ecstatic, the audience, the pianist and the singer, somehow its cathartic, cleansing,’ he says.
‘Some get obsessed about it just as people do about Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In the Ryedale concert, I saw a man in the audience closely following a score. Everyone wants to sing this cycle even though it’s massive, a climbing Mount Everest equivalent. Tonight I won’t think about how I’ll sing the cycle or use my voice in a certain way. I‘ll just do it instinctively.’
Roderick Williams performs tonight (August 1) in Wintereisse as part of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Visit: www.afcm.com.au
Gillian is the author of Elvis and Me: How a world-weary musician and a broken racehorse rescued each other, Finch.