Sunday 19th March 2023 4:15pm

Katherine Williams Soprano

Ben Marsden Piano


Gabriel Fauré, Three Songs

‘Le Papillon et la Fleur’ Victor Hugo

‘Au bord de l’eau’ Sully Prudhomme

‘Green’ Paul Verlaine

Roger Bevan Williams, Animal Verses

‘The sea-hawk’ Richard Eberhart

‘A riddle’ William Cowper

‘The sloth’ Theodore Roethke

‘Mrs Reynold’s cat’ John Keats

‘The Blackbird’ Alfred Lord Tennyson

Claude Debussy Two songs

‘C’est l’Extase’ Paul Verlaine

‘Green’ Paul Verlaine

Francis Poulenc Three Songs all with texts by Guillaume Apollinaire

‘La Grenouillère’


‘Voyage à Paris’

All four sets of songs in Sunday’s amazingly attractive programme had something in common. They were all powerfully pictorial, though in very different ways. Katherine Williams had a clear soprano voice that was particularly well suited to French songs. Her French was excellent too. It must have been, because I could easily follow the English translations in my programme. The original French texts were not provided.

Ben Marsden is a pre-eminent piano accompanist. I was well aware of that because I had heard him many times before. Today on the superb Bosendorfer grand, belonging to the Cathedral, he did not disappoint. In fact, he delighted me!

The recital began with three song settings by Fauré. The first was ‘Le papillon et la fleur’ (The butterfly and the flower) with text by Victor Hugo. The feeling of the butterfly in flight was depicted splendidly by the piano while Katherine’s voice soared and swooped beautifully. Her phrasing underlined the text with fine rhythmic sweep’

The piano and voice captured the slower more liquid pace of ‘Au bord de l’eau’ (By the water) with words by ‘Sully’ Prudhomme. Sully was a nickname, he was really René François Armand Prudhomme. There was a delightful gentleness to this music and Katherine sold it to us at full marvellous price.

‘Green’ was a poem by Paul Verlaine. Again, Katherine had a sweep to her delivery with carefully thought out phrasing. We were to hear another setting of these words by a different composer later in the programme.

Next however were the five Animal Verses set by Roger Bevan Williams. Fauré’s music has a certain level gentleness to it where expressiveness has to be carefully listened for. The music of Roger Williams is far more overtly striking, giving his brilliant choice of poetry a dazzling musical clarity. The highly contrasting tempi of the songs worked really well from the slow setting of ‘The Sloth’ to the dizzying rapidity of ‘A Riddle’.

In the opening song, ‘Sea-Hawk’, rippling piano suggested perhaps the glittering sea over which the sky-hawk suggested by the soprano soared skyward. This was an enticingly pictorial piece. Towards the end of the poem, in the last verses, there was darker music for both piano and voice matching the ideas of ‘threat’ in the words. Look at the final two verses:

                                              How many centuries of sight

                                              In this piercing, inhuman perfection

                                              Stretch the gaze off the rocky promontory,

                                              To make the mind exult

                                              At the eye of a sea-hawk,

                                              A blaze of grandeur, permanence of the impersonal.

Do the words not suggest the grandeur of vast open seas and skies? Roger Williams certainly did in his music delivered with power and possibly just a touch of menace by Katherine and Ben’s exultant performance.

‘A Riddle’ throws teasing clues at us about what the answer is. The speed at which this was accomplished made it work all the better. It turns out, I think, to be a dog.

‘The Sloth’ goes to the opposite extreme of tempo. The piano has a low note with a chord just above it repeatedly to suggest the almost non movements of this animal. I remember seeing one on television and it was green. This was not its real colour. It was just that moss or the like had grown in its fur because it did not move much. Most of the piano notes were culled from the lower octaves of the piano but there were some surprising high notes at the end.

‘To Mrs Reynold’s Cat’ not the sort of poem you expect from John Keats but it was a splendidly well crafted narrative song put across so well by Katherine. The feline movements of the cat were all there in the music. However the song that really took my fancy was the final one, ‘The Blackbird’. Roger must have listened to some real blackbirds in his garden because the music had pauses then bursts of sound in both piano and voice and this is exactly how blackbirds do sing. The detailed melodic turns in the vocal writing also matched the birdsong very nicely.

The next two composers were also great pictorialists. The most famous of those being Debussy. We had two songs from him. The title of ‘C’est l’Extase’ does not in itself suggest anything pictorial but the descriptions of woodlands, lake or perhaps sea shores certainly do. Debussy’s music captures the spirit of these scenes rather than their physical qualities. It is ethereal even mysterious but very expressive and that is what we got so beautifully from Katherine and Ben. Debussy was the second composer who had set Verlaine’s poem ‘Green’.Do I dare say that this was the better of the two versions. It was certainly beautifully performed on Sunday.

The final composer in the concert was Francis Poulenc with his three settings of poems by Apollinaire. The texts of the first two poems ‘La Grenouillère’ and ‘Montparnasse’ are unusual and surprising, ‘full bosomed women, stupid as cabbages?’ or ‘Bearded angel you are really, A lyric poet from Germany who wants to know Paris’. What is that all about? In any case Poulenc’s music can often be a touch quirky though not so much today, but it did have a lightness to it. I felt in all his pieces I could smell the red wine, garlic, strong coffee and Gauloises, perhaps most especially in the final song ‘Voyage à Paris’. I taught English in the University of Rennes in the nineteen sixties and these last songs took me back there. So thank-you Katherine and Ben for a wonderful concert and some special memories that I had almost forgotten.