The 9th Oxford Lieder Festival: Holywell Music Room and elsewhere, 15 to 30 October 2010.
The ninth Oxford Lieder Festival opened on the afternoon of Friday 15 October with the now customary Schools’ Project Concert, this year held in the Ashmolean Museum and developed as a young peoples’ response to items in the collections there. This was followed by Celebratory Partsongs by Brahms and Schumann performed by a chorus in Broad Street. These were two of the events additional to the straight performance of lieder in recital which help to make the Oxford Lieder Festival such a notable event in the musical life of the nation. Others were a ‘Bring and Sing’ session and ‘Singing for All’ and composition workshops for amateurs, an account of music on the web as well as the usual masterclasses. This year there was a masterclass given by baritone Stephan Loges as well as the three-day Master Course followed by a concert, this year led by Ian Partridge, Patron of the Friends of Oxford Lieder.
The first recital was, fittingly, given by baritone Wolfgang Holzmair with pianist Julius Drake. This was Holzmair’s third visit to the Festival, the first having been in 2007 when at extremely short notice he replaced Olaf Bär in an unforgettable performance of Dichterliebe. Last year he appeared again, with Andreas Haefliger in an equally memorable interpretation of Winterreise. This year he sang Schumann, settings of Heine followed by the Kerner Lieder. In an enlightening pre-concert talk Richard Stokes explained the complex sources of Heine’s inspiration and Schumann’s response to his poems. The programme included some of the four songs omitted from the original twenty of Dichterliebe. Holzmair’s performance begins with the first notes of the piano introduction and involves his whole being. With his gestures he communicates the sentiments of the song so completely that the role of even such a fine partner as the pianist Julius Drake was reduced to that of accompanist. (I note I wrote almost the opposite of their 2007 Dichterliebe which was a perfect partnership!) To some, Holzmair’s platform manner is a distraction if not an irritant; to me, now, it seems to be an integral part of his performance which places him in the forefront of today’s lieder singers.
We remember Katarina Karnéus as a worthy winner of the 1995 Cardiff Singer of the World. (Was it that long ago?) She subsequently appeared in Oxford with WNO in Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice in 2000, when I noted ‘charming rather than profound’. Since then, with her now established place on the international operatic stage and in concert, she has gained in profundity without loss of charm. Her programme at the Lieder Festival contained songs by the Norwegian Grieg, the Swede Ture Rangström and the Finn Sibelius, each receiving intense and sympathetic advocacy. Another good pre-concert talk, by Richard Wigmore, put them in context. In previous festivals we have become convinced of Grieg’s genius as a song composer, his German songs standing comparison with the greatest in the repertoire. This impression was reinforced by Karnéus programme of settings in Norwegian of Ibsen and the short Op 67 cycle of Haugtussa by Arne Garborg. Rangström has a high reputation in Sweden, not least for his settings of Swedish poets. Inevitably these have limited appeal outside Scandinavia. Karnéus’ manner is a complete contrast to Holzmair: quite static to begin with, in later songs she conveyed the mood perfectly with the minimum of gesture, unfortunately disturbed by raucous singing from outside during her last song.
Currently considered the greatest of all song cycles, Schubert’s Winterreise has received several memorable performances at the Oxford Lieder Festival. In 2004 we heard Mark Padmore with Julius Drake. In 2006 James Gilchrist again with Drake and in 2009, Holzmair with Haefliger gave totally contrasted but equally valid impressive interpretations while in 2008 Florian Boesch with Andrew West gave a wildly eccentric performance, to me a total misjudgement of the Traveller’s psyche. This year it was performed at short notice by tenor Daniel Norman with the Festival’s Artistic Director Sholto Kynoch. Norman first came to our attention in 2007 when he caused a sensation in die Schöne Müllerin, replacing Gilchrist at the last moment, meeting pianist Anna Tilbrook a few hours before the concert; we have since heard him several times in Oxford, notably in Britten’s Five Canticles last year. Maybe my expectations were too high, but this Winterreise was rather disappointing. Individual songs were sung with moving intensity – der Lindenbaum, die Post and particularly the final der Leiermann – but missing was the overall sense of progression through a winter landscape so apparent in Holzmair’s interpretation last year. It got off on the wrong foot, so to speak, by setting much too fast a tempo for the opening Gute Nacht, given that the piano is supposed throughout to represent the footsteps of the reluctant Traveller growing ever more weary and isolated, as pointed out in a perceptive pre-concert talk by Natasha Loges.
The following evening we heard Schubert’s Schwanengesang sung by a young baritone Nicholas Merryweather, replacing Benedict Nelson at short notice. Despite the short notice, he formed an ideal partnership with the pianist Gary Matthewman in a performance well deserving the ovation it received, drawing part of the audience to its feet.
The third Schubert cycle, die Schöne Müllerin was performed on this occasion by the young German tenor Tilman Lichdi with Roger Vignolles. The recital was introduced by Ian Partridge who took us through the songs, reminding us of the salient features, the ambiguity of the contacts between the hero and the miller’s daughter, the importance of the brook and the sudden change of mood with the arrival of the hunter. Opinions were strongly divided about this interpretation. Many found it very moving. It started off with great promise with singer and piano in close accord, pacing the first few songs with good judgement. But this did not last. My immediate reaction at the end was ‘too fast and too loud’ to which my neighbour added ‘too out of tune’. To me the performance did not add any insights. I felt that, on this occasion, Vignolles, at several places in the more excited passages appeared to be forcing the pace rather than following the singer’s lead. He also has a habit, which I have noticed on previous occasions, of holding down the sustaining pedal at the end of a song while he turns the page. I would not mention this were it not that the audience is enjoined on every page of the programme: … turn pages ….. only after the song and accompaniment are completely finished.
Now regular features are the ‘Lunch with Schumann’ recitals given by students from our Music Colleges. This year there were four of which I was able to attend two. The first was given by a sensational young tenor Stuart Jackson, the winner earlier this year of Oxford Lieder’s own Scholarship. The pianist was an equally talented Jocelyn Freeman; playing with great character and precision, she formed a perfect partner. The programme was an intelligent selection of twenty settings of various poets, some well-known, others less so, based around a progression from light to dark in mood. Jackson is of imposing presence; his first notes revealed a fine heldentenor quality of voice so that an immediate reaction was ‘Siegfried’ but that was adapted to a sensitive interpretation of the romantic lieder, sung with perfect diction. He should have a great future, possibly as a Wagnerian. The second recital was given by soprano Laura Sheenin (another late substitute) and tenor Joshua Friend with pianist Yasmin Rowe from the Royal Northern College of Music performing both solos and duets, in another well-chosen programme, concluding with a spicy Robert Burns adaptation of a Lovers’ Serenade. Both voices, not yet fully formed, showed great promise, both en primeur (to use my favourite œnological analogy). Yasmin Rowe, an exceptionally accomplished and natural lieder player provided superb support.
A concert by regular visitors The Prince Consort included two world premiers, by Stephen Hough and by Ned Rorem (featured in last year’s programme). Both were well-received.
The end of the first week of the Festival was marked by the initiation of an ambitious enterprise by Oxford Lieder - the first complete recording of the songs of Hugo Wolf. In two concerts, all fifty-three of the Mörike Lieder were recorded, performed by Lieder Festival favourites Sophie Daneman, Anna Grevelius, James Gilchrist and Stephan Loges with Sholto Kynoch, to a silent and enraptured audience (not a cough to be heard). Our appreciation was enhanced by enlightening pre-concert talks, by Natasha Loges on Wolf’s attitude to Mörike and the importance of the words and by John Warren on the poet’s life with a run-through of the texts heard the second evening. The performance was wonderful, not least for the way it was held together by the indefatigable pianist, each postlude being played with subtle character to summarise the song. Each singer brought their own individual personality to bear: perhaps most impressively Loges, whose development we have followed since the earliest Festivals, as the only native German-speaker but Gilchrist with his wonderfully expressive enunciation (though becoming slightly mannered in gesture), Grevelius with her pure clear tones and serene personality and the lighter-voiced Daneman, at her ebullient best in the humorous songs, all contributed to an outstanding musical experience. At the beginning of the second evening a charming young soprano Raphaella Papadakis was given ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ and held her own in three early Mörike songs.
The second week provided some light relief after the intense concentration required in the first. It opened with yet another fine singer, mezzo Catharine Hopper, here accompanied by Kynoch and the Doric String Quartet. The Doric were ‘quartet in residence’ who played Schumann in three afternoon concerts. Here they played Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet. They produce a wonderfully mellow sound with perfect balance. The remaining programme was of works for voice with various instrumental accompaniments by Chausson, Saint-Saens, Brahms and Respighi. The following evening we were entertained by the delightful soprano sisters Mary and Sophie Bevan in a programme of solos and duets, the first half devoted to Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann, the second to French songs by Saint-Saens, Debussy, Gounod and Fauré. It was good to hear some Fauré, the supreme mélodiste, sadly neglected by Oxford Lieder. A highlight was the appropriate choice of Brahms’ setting of Mörike’s Die Schwestern about two sisters, inseparable until a young man appears on the scene. The audience was able to form its own view as to which sister had won!
The concert given by the Master Course participants took place the following evening, each of the eight duos presenting a short programme. Widely ranged in career development and experience, all gave worthy performances but outstanding, judged as a duo were the post-graduates mezzo Mae Heydorn and Varvara Doletskaya in Liszt and Rachmaninov. Also worthy of mention for a concluding encore of Grieg’s Killingdans from Op.67 are Lore Binon and Cecily Lock, rivalling Karnéus and Drake.
Spanish mezzo Clara Mouriz first came to our attention at the 2008 Oxford Chamber Music Festival for her ‘beautiful authentic sound equally powerful and clear over the whole of her extended range’. Her voice has now developed into one the most beautiful I have ever heard, equally clear from an assured fortissimo to a divine pianissimo and incorporating an old-fashioned contralto lower register, every word distinct and with a charming platform manner. She entranced the audience with early Schubert settings of Metastasio, Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’Été, some Spanish songs and finishing with a spectacular coloratura cantata Giovanna d’Arco by Rossini, brilliantly supported by pianist Joseph Middleton.
Unable to attend the last two days, Mouriz was for me a fitting climax to a wonderful Festival of which the other memorable highlights were Holzmair and Drake, the Mörike Lieder and for Oxford Lieder’s own ‘find’ Stuart Jackson. Particular congratulations to Administrator Laura Ashby, not least for ensuring that the programmes accounted for last minute alterations (with only two detected errors). As usual Oxford owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Artistic Director, pianist Sholto Kynoch, for bringing to the Lieder Festival so many talented musicians into such a well-balanced programme
I have to register one disappointment. The organisers chose to hire a full sized ‘D’ model Steinway piano rather than using the HMR model ‘C’ whose tone makes it so ideal for the acoustics and intimate atmosphere of the Holywell Music Room for the accompaniment of lieder and in chamber music. Of course, for solo piano the fuller resonance of the lower notes is essential which is why the acoustics are not really suited for piano recitals - but that is another matter. It did not help that on this occasion the attentions of the tuner failed to remove an occasional unpleasant ‘twang’. It is to be hoped this matter will be reconsidered on future occasions though I can understand the performers’ preference for the fuller possibilities of the ‘D’.
17 November 2010