What connects Birgit Nilsson, Roderick Williams and St John's Choir?

Martin CullingfordTue 24th April 2018

Apart, that is, from singing...

A theme will often emerge from the features in any given issue of Gramophone. Sometimes this will be intentional, though sometimes it only becomes apparent when the copy is filed and the stories told. 

The initial, obvious theme in our latest issue would appear to be the voice. Birgit Nilsson was one of the most brilliant of 20th-century opera stars – though somehow the word star, though completely justified, doesn’t seem quite right for the down-to-earth, no-nonsense person who emerges from Mike Ashman’s centenary celebration. Self-taught, ‘practical’ as remembered by Sir John Tooley, without ‘the trappings of a prima donna’ as remembered by Valerie Solti. When looking through photographs to illustrate our feature, it was noticeable that almost all the ones that convey the classic image of a ‘great soprano’ seemed to be have been taken from the stalls, looking up through the spotlight at an actor in role on stage. All those from, we might say, real life, seem, well ‘real life’: Nilsson on her family farm, Nilsson fooling around light-heartedly; rarely if ever playing the diva. Perhaps it’s this grounded humanity which makes her insight into the many complex, challenging and challenged characters she portrayed still so communicative for listeners several decades on (and how lucky we are that her career coincided with the huge growth of the record industry in the late 1950s and early ’60s ).

Roderick Williams likewise comes across as the antithesis of an ‘opera star’, though again the label is no less deserved. This one-time school teacher may have since graced the stages of Covent Garden and the Last Night of the Proms but, as he tells Neil Fisher, it’s to the classroom he’s about to return, touring a translation of Winterreise – ‘Winter’s Journey’ – to primary and secondary schools, making the case that Lieder could be, and should be, as powerful as any other type of music. Williams is one of the most humanly communicative of singers, whether in the inner dark depths of a Schubert song-cycle or as a touchingly endearing Papageno: I can think of nobody better suited for such a crucial mission (and, if the seed falls on particularly fertile imaginations, potentially a life-changing one). 

And finally, I visited St John’s College, Cambridge to interview the choir’s Music Director Andrew Nethsingha. During our conversation, I was struck by the weight he gave to the idea of choral music-making being about, above all else, the conveying of meaning and message. This is true of all singing worth hearing, of course, but the importance he gives to helping children as young as nine engage with, and then communicate, the deep personal reflections of, say, the Psalms left a great impression on me. Children as young as nine who are, it is humbling to remind ourselves, performing some of the most extraordinary music ever written, at the highest of levels.

And so, did you spot the emerging theme? For me, at the heart of these three features about three very different facets of vocal music lies communication. The desire, and ability, to reach others with the essence of the art of singing, whether in person or, through recording, throughout the world.  

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

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Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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