Recording of the Week Roderick Williams sings a new work by Howard Skempton: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Regular readers of this newsletter may recall that when I spoke to the great American baritone Thomas Hampson recently about his disc of orchestrated Lieder he was lamenting the scarcity of repertoire for low male voice and ensemble – this week I have just the thing for anyone who feels the same, in the form of a hugely evocative new setting of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner by the British composer Howard Skempton. Written for Roderick Williams and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Mariner was commissioned by Presto’s chairman Maurice Millward, who like many of us had been transfixed by the easy eloquence and charisma which Williams exudes in his regular performances at the Leamington Music Festival each May.
Possibly because of its length and the difficulties involved in trying to edit it down, Coleridge’s monumental poem has been rather neglected by ‘classical’ composers (though as Roderick pointed out when we were discussing this at the recording session, it’s been a source of inspiration for numerous rock and metal bands over the past couple of decades), but Skempton’s judiciously pruned version preserves both narrative integrity and atmosphere without ever allowing the musical momentum to flag.
Skempton is perhaps best known for works on a much smaller scale than this, and his background as a musical miniaturist plays out in the wonderful economy of his instrumentation: though the piece is scored for piano quintet, horn and double bass, there are lengthy passages where the voice is accompanied by just one or two instruments, and in reserving the full ensemble for climatic moments in the narrative he makes the seven instruments seem like a far larger group when they finally come together. The pivotal slaying of the albatross registers with such shock that a certain colleague gave a wail of despair on first hearing (of the disc, fortunately, rather than at the live premiere in Birmingham): Skempton waits until this moment to introduce the solo horn, and as the piece has been scored entirely for strings and voice until that point it’s a striking gesture indeed.
Williams is, as ever, the most spellbinding of story-tellers. Coleridge’s tortured seafarer is an absolute gift for a singer with such a knack for navigating complex texts and painting words without lapsing into mannerism, and Skempton responds with natural speech-rhythms and a modal sea-shanty-like motif (warning: I've had it as an earworm all week...) which haunts the work from the very first bars; one of the many things I love about this work is the curious synergy between composer and performer in that both resist the temptation to gild the lily, and in the recording session I attended (with Williams directing the conductorless ensemble) it really did seem as if Coleridge’s ‘Wedding-Guest’ was conjuring both text and music into being for the very first time. Williams’s delivery is never overblown, but infused with the same fierce commitment which he brings to his operatic roles. He recorded the work in the middle of a hugely successful run as Britten’s Billy Budd – a character he sees as darker and more conflicted than popular opinion would suggest – for Opera North, and somehow you can almost smell the sea-spray; there’s also the faintest and most tantalising echo of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman in his delivery.
The work is paired with another of Maurice’s commissions from Skempton, the viola concerto Only The Sound Remains; lush and luminous, it provides an ideal counterweight to the austere sound-world of Mariner. Composer, singer and commissioner are also currently collaborating on a setting of DH Lawrence's Man and Bat, and if it approaches these two works in originality and impact it should be quite something.
At the beginning of May Mariner will be performed at the Leamington Festival, where it all began: we hope to bring you an exclusive interview about the piece with Roderick in advance of the concert, but in the meantime NMC have provided a short, utterly charming video of him in conversation with Howard Skempton, filmed just after the recording-session in Gospel Oak.
Roderick Williams (baritone), Christopher Yates (viola), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Martyn Brabbins
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