ROGER B. WILLIAMS: Piano and Organ






IONA RAE: Soprano


Sunday 17th February, 2019

I was pleased to see a fairly large audience had come to enjoy a very special concert at St Machar’s Cathedral late on Sunday afternoon because it turned out to be quite exceptional. There are currently eight Choral Scholars taking part in the Cathedral Choir and on Sunday, seven of them excelled in first-class solo performances. Several of them are music students at the University of Aberdeen, some are studying other subjects at the University and a few sing in the University Chapel Choir as well. Congratulations are due to Dr Roger B. Williams, Director of Music and Organist to the Cathedral for arranging and introducing the performance and acting as piano and organ accompanist throughout the programme.

There was a variety of ages among the performers. One of the youngest was baritone Elias Stammeijer. Originally from the Netherlands, he is fluent in Dutch, German and English and he tells me he also plays the violin. He chose to sing a popular English concert song by Gerald Finzi, ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ a setting of words by Shakespeare from Cymbeline. Elias’s voice is not yet completely mature but it was attractive and had a wide range which he covered without any sense of strain. His diction was absolutely perfect and his phrasing well-considered. Overall it was a sensitive and thoroughly musical performance. I would not be surprised if in the future he becomes a fine interpreter of English Art Song.

Maria Papanastasiou as her name suggests is from Greece. She gave a nice clean and clear performance of the Pie Jesu from Fauré’s Requiem with Roger Williams accompanying her on organ. This piece is often performed by a boy treble and I still have the record of the King’s College performance with Robert Chilcott as the treble soloist. He is now a celebrated choral composer. Maria’s lovely clear singing was perfect for this piece.

Joona Juntenen is from Finland from where many famous bass singers come, Martti Talvela for instance. Joona chose ‘The Vagabond’ possibly the most famous of the solos from Songs of Travel by Vaughan Williams. His rich bass voice was strong and warm though yet to mature fully. As with Elias Stammeijer, his diction was absolutely superb, but above all, what impressed me was his wonderful outgoing delivery of the music. He really brought the song to life with an acting talent which we were to enjoy even more, later in the programme.

Saskia Mucke is a talented viola player as well as a fine singer. Like Elias once again she had full control over a wide vocal range with steady unwavering low notes and easy upward soaring to the highest notes in ‘Die Nacht’ by Richard Strauss. These upward vocal soarings are a hallmark of the music of this, one of my favourite composers. Saskia captured the style of this music nicely with splendid variations in dynamics.

John Kennedy from Ireland will, I hope, forgive me for saying that he was one of the more mature performers – please don’t think old however. He had a nice warm baritone voice but his choice of song, Gustav Mahler’s ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’ (Who thought up this little song) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, was more of an essay in playful lightness and he delivered that particularly well. Most of my recordings of this piece are by female singers who make it teasingly flirty: Lucia Popp, Diana Damrau and Christa Ludwig. There is a version by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau where he delivers the long flowing melismatic passages particularly well and John Kennedy’s performance was pretty close to that.

I am particularly fond of the poetry of the American James Agee especially his short poem ‘Sure on this shining night’. I loved the gorgeous setting by Morten Lauridsen which was performed at the University with the composer at the piano. Samuel Barber has made another really fine setting of the words and today it was sung really beautifully by Iona Rae. She is gifted with a lovely clear soaring soprano but it also has a special warmth to it which was perfect for the delivery of this lovely song.

All the singers so far were excellent but very occasionally in my time as a reviewer I have come across a young performer who goes a long way beyond that. I remember, for instance, the first time I heard Lisa Milne when she was still a teenager and was absolutely blown away. Today I had a similar experience listening to a young tenor from Fife, Liam Forrest. It made me think of the young performances of Pavarotti. Here was a true Italian sounding tenor voice but it was not just that which impressed me. His phrasing, the easy smoothness of his flow and the fullness of his expression in Alessandro Stradella’s ‘Pietà Signore!’ were the very essence of the most mature musicality. Wow!

What could there possibly be to follow that. Well, Roger Williams had something up his sleeve. He got bass Joona Juntenen who had already impressed with his outgoing delivery and Saskia Mucke to bring to life the characters of Papageno and Papagena from Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ in their comic duet, ‘Klinget, Glöchen, klinget’. Yes Roger, Joona and Saskia, just the very thing to send us  home rejoicing. Thank-you all!