United Kingdom Opera in Song  – Winter Journey: Roderick Williams (baritone) and Ella O’Neill (piano). Opera Holland Park, London 1.7.2022. (CC)
Schubert – Winterreise (sung in English (transl. Jeremy Sams)
There is little doubt that Jeremy Sams’s translations of Schubert into English are little works of art in themselves: Sir John Tomlinson sang Sams’s translation of Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall in 2016; now Roderick Williams gave a miraculous account of Sams’s Winter Journey. Williams was joined by pianist Ella O’Neill, winner of the Accompanist’s Prize at the Kathleen Ferrier Awards at Wigmore Hall in 2019, the same year she graduated from the Royal College of Music. She is fine musician, impeccably prepared and technically superb. If there was a mismatch between Williams’s profundity and O’Neill’s thorough playing, it is a gap that will surely tighten up. It is the clarity of O’Neill’s playing that is most impressive, even above her accuracy: a no-smudge zone in which Schubert’s harmonies and lines can have maximal effect. Her handling of the opening of ‘On the river’ (‘Wasserflut’) revealed exactly what magic she is capable of; nice posthorn imitation, too (‘The Post’/’Die Post’). Perhaps her way with ’Stormy morning’ (‘Der stürmische Morgen’) was somewhat tame; but how, in compensation, she found the perfect deep sonority for the opening choral statement of ‘No room at the inn’ (‘Das Wirtshaus’).
Williams has recorded Winterreise (in German) with Iain Burnside for Chandos but, as he himself pointed out in his spoken introduction, he has spent more time with English song. His catalogue in the repertoire – a clear act of love – is cherishable and will surely be a great legacy. But Williams’s strength has always been his mix of intelligence and depth – even above the sheer beauty of his voice, and in Schubert’s great cycles, we hear this writ large. He has, incidentally, recorded Sams’s translation also, for Signum Records and with pianist Christopher Glynn.
The invitation to hear these songs in English was an invitation to hear the cycle completely differently. Unless one is a fluent German speaker, it is difficult – if not impossible – to engage with the text and therefore the journey in the way Schubert surely intended. In English, one can trace each nuance of the Wanderer’s responses to his environment. As Williams pointed out, nothing really happens in Winterreise, instead, we are offered a set of reactions to an external environment which in turn act as triggers of psychological investigation.
From the opening song, ‘Goodnight’, Williams drew the audience in. He had suggested that the strangeness of hearing the work in the vernacular wears off after a song or two; and so it was. Williams and O’Neill’s Winter Journey was a multi-faceted one, and Sams’s translation was a major factor, his lines of texts perfectly mapping the melodic lines (there was just one moment where it felt that an inserted word was ‘snatched’).
Williams’s protagonist was no unhinged mentalist on a suicide mission; this was a very human investigation of the human soul in its emotionally devastated aspect. Within this, Williams created a monodrama. Moments of near-Sprechgesang (‘Frozen Tears’/’Gefor’ne Tränen’) seemed perfectly natural, while the magical worlds of ‘Will-o-the-wisp’ (‘Irrlicht’) transfixed, seemingly asking us to question the very nature of reality. In the protagonist’s observations, he surely sees everything as a projection of himself, of his internal emotions. He certainly projects those emotions onto his environment, finding resonances everywhere in Schubert’s idealist Romantic mindscape; and certainly we felt his pain when, in the twelfth song, ‘Loneliness’ (‘Einsamkeit’), we hear the poignant line ‘How dare the sun be shining’. The final destination of this progression led to ‘The hurdy-gurdy man’ (‘Der Leiermann’) for which Williams stepped further away from the piano, as if in a final act of dissociation. Phenomenal.
Further to the linguistic aspect of this performance it was that through Sams’s translation Williams could allow himself to relish the individuality of the actual sound of the English language: the ‘… sh’ sounds of ‘rush’ and ‘gush’ in ‘On the River’, for instance. The only place I personally, missed a translation of a line was in ‘Die Krähe’ (‘The Crow’, the 15th song) where the magic of ‘Krähe, wunderliches Tier’ (‘Crow, you strange creature’) is changed to the less poetically impactful ‘Thank you / Good to know you’re here’. But that’s a small, and probably personal, point. This was a major achievement on various levels: the translation itself, Williams’s individual reading of the score, and the introduction of O’Neill’s clear talent!