Oxford – Lieder’s Tenth Festival
The Tenth Oxford Lieder Festival: Swedish Song, La Bonne Chanson, Young Artists, Flott and Denoth, Holywell Music Room, October 2011.
I hyphenate my title to stress that it is a Festival arranged by the now well-established Oxford Lieder, founded by the pianist Sholto Kynoch, which exists to promote the art of lieder in the wide sense of the word, encompassing works for keyboard-accompanied solo voice settings of poetic texts in any language and national tradition. It is not a Lieder-Festival in the narrowly, accepted, sense of German songs from the end of the eighteenth century onwards. To emphasise this, I devote this review of the Tenth Festival to programmes which fall outside the narrow definition, thus excluding the successful Schubert Weekend with which it opened. This avoids having to find new superlatives to describe outstanding performances by established singers or younger voices (whose development we have followed over the preceding nine years) of standard works from the repertoire.
The second weekend of the Festival was dedicated to Swedish song, a topic very close to my heart. My late wife had urged such an event on Kynoch for many years. The event was sponsored by the Swedish Embassy and included lunch of Scandinavian open sandwiches, hosted by the Ambassador and the Counsellor for Cultural Affairs.
In an insightful pre-concert talk, Gavin Plumley analysed the different senses of nationalism in music from patriotic verve at one extreme to nostalgia for nature and the homeland at the other, with Sweden firmly at the latter end. Throughout the nineteenth century and still today, life there is dominated by the passing of the seasons, with short spring and autumn, and summers, with little darkness, when everyone retreats to a boat or a summer house to emulate times past, and to long dark winters when only foreigners do not enjoy the extreme icy, snowy conditions (though even in neutral Sweden, climate change is interrupting this regular pattern). This dominance of the seasons is reflected in the yearly calendar. Each family has its own rituals for birthdays, and name days, as well as for the public holidays, May Day, midsummer, Christmas, celebrated with customary food, drink, dancing … etc. It is necessary to understand something of this life in order to fully appreciate Swedish song. There is a long tradition of poetry popular in Sweden, dominated by the closeness to nature and consciousness of the passing seasons (naturlyrik), and this provides the texts for much of Swedish song.
The other factor, important in song, is, of course, the language. The two aspects of this are the vowels and the stress. The Swedish language has three additional vowels, distinct letters å, ä and ö which follow x, y, z in the alphabet. The result of the plethora of vowel sounds is a language sensitive and highly-tuned to correct pronunciation. This, with the sound of the ‘y’ (used by officialdom to distinguish non- Swedes) and, with equal stress on adjacent syllables means that foreigners find it difficult to make themselves understood. It is why, with the definite article at the end of the noun, Swedish songs texts just do not work in translation. Much of this was explained in a presentation by Bo Skarström (Stockholm) illustrated by mezzo Mae Heydorn.
The lunch was preceded by a concert given by the young Ida Falk Winland and Håkan Vrasmo with Matti Hirvonen, pianist for most of the weekend. He had a robust, not entirely accurate, style of playing but nicely judged to his singers’ reserves of power. Winland, in particular, has an attractive stage personality, though with the remains of what I have, in the past, called a ‘Vadstena screech’ – a slightly harsh edge to the voice which I have noted before in young Swedish sopranos, particularly those trained at Vadstena Academy (which she was not!). The first part of the programme was of eighteenth and nineteenth century Swedish songs contrasted with Poulenc, Strauss and Schumann in the second. Although seeming a little out of place in a Swedish weekend, it was the beautifully sung Poulenc and Strauss which stick in the memory, except for the seven settings of Pär Lagerkvist, Hjärtats Sånger by a composer unknown to me, Gunnar de Frumerie (1908-87).
The final concert of the Weekend was a rare recital by one of today’s leading opera stars. We were first impressed by Miah Persson at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in 2003 when she was virtually unknown outside Sweden and fortunate enough to see her as Susanna in David McVicar’s remarkable Figaro at Covent Garden in 2006 and as Fiordiligi at Glyndebourne a year later. On this occasion she sang a Scandinavian programme, contrasting Ture Rangström (1884-1947) and Gösta Nyström (1890-1966) with Grieg and Sibelius. Although contemporaries, the two Swedes have quite different styles, Rangström looking back to the German tradition (his most effective songs were the most derivative) while Nyström is more rooted in the turn of the century, employing pianistic sonorities recalling Debussy and Ravel. Persson sang both equally persuasively. She is smaller than remembered from stage appearances but retains a youthful vivacity, utterly delightful in her platform manner. The Grieg was the six German songs Op.48, confirming again that this composer stands head and shoulders in international status above other Nordic song composers. I found the Sibelius less satisfactory, these innocent love songs sung too knowingly. Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte, which inevitably ended the programme, failed to convey the changing mood following a young girl’s trysts with her lover.
Two evenings later there was another great treat, a rare opportunity to hear a live performance of La Bonne Chanson, Fauré’s setting of the nine tender love poems by Paul Verlaine in its version accompanied by piano quintet and double bass (though it is recorded that the composer preferred the piano version). This was given in a performance of immediacy and transparency, rarely apparent, by the Lieder Festival’s favourite James Gilchrist with his ever-faithful pianist Anna Tilbrook, the Barbirolli Quartet and Ben Griffiths, double bass. The thick texture of the instrumentation did nothing to hide the clarity of words and sentiments of the singer.
But this was not all. La Bonne Chanson was preceded, in the first half, by four songs by Fauré and then a stunning performance of Britten’s First String Quartet, a youthful work given an exuberent performance by the youthful Barbirolli Quartet. This is an early work, eclectic in style, not without hints of Bartok, which predates the emergence of Britten’s characteristic style.
The other work was by Charlotte Bray (b.1982) the Festival’s first composer in residence. Entitled Verre de Venise, this was a setting of interconnected verses in French by Rainer Maria Rilke scored for tenor and piano quintet. It is a work of remarkable maturity, not out of place in the company of Fauré and Britten. I was sorry to have to miss a late night concert with her much acclaimed Midnight Closes. The première of a work commissioned for the Festival received a glowing review in The Times.
The young Portuguese soprano Sónia Grané and equally youthful French pianist Edwige Herchenroder created such an impression when they won the award of Oxford Lieder’s Young Artists’ Platform 2011 that, had I been restricted to just one concert at the Festival, this was the one I would have chosen. I was not disappointed. Not since Lucy Crowe and William Berger with pianist John Reid in Wolf‘s Italienisches Liederbuch in 2006 have I been so impressed by young performers at the Festival. (Incidentally, Crowe is singing the Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne in 2012.) Grané and Herchenroder, still students at the RAM, are truly a partnership of equals; each brings her own strong personality to the duo yet without distorting their ensemble. The exciting thing about the duo is that one can see the potential for still further depth and maturity
As in the competition, this was a very intelligently designed programme starting with five of Fauré’s best –loved mélodies. This was one of the high points of the whole Festival. From the opening piano scale of Le Papillon et la Fleur to the breathless ecstasy of Notre Amour it was a performance of the utmost delicacy. With the subtlest of rubato from the piano, this was better than I had ever heard these Fauré songs before. By contrast, there followed four lieder by Richard Strauss, equally beautifully performed. After this we were introduced to two evocative Portuguese songs by de Freitas Branco (1890-1955) and Eurico Carrapatosa (b.1962), followed by Cuatro Madrigales by Rodrigo. The concert was rounded off with Strauss again: Die Nacht, yet another sublime interpretation.
I hope this duo has been signed up for an evening slot at next year’s Festival!
I hope I may be excused the familiarity with the name of Dame Felicity Lott. It seemed not inappropriate in that here she was accompanied on the guitar, an instrument of choice, we were told, for informal performance in a domestic setting at the time of Haydn, Mozart through to Schubert. Here the guitarist was Christoph Denoth known to Oxford audiences for his appearances as a classical performer and advocacy of the use of his instrument to accompany Schubert. Did he make the case?
Although advertised as songs by Franz Schubert, the programme was in fact a mixture of Dowland, Mozart, Haydn and Schubert as well as some variations for solo guitar by Fernando Sor which demonstrated the player’s virtuosity.
The first set of songs, by Dowland, charmingly sung, were probably written for lute accompaniment. The resonant plangency of that instrument to my ears makes the guitar a second best. The Mozart and Haydn which followed were more successful, where the guitar has mainly an accompanying role. One would have liked to hear some of the latter’s English songs. But the Schubert just did not work. Only Heidenröselein came over well with guitar. The three final substantial songs, Lied der Mignon, Ständchen and Die Nacht required the far firmer solid support and dynamic range of the keyboard than could be provided by a plucked instrument for a singer of Felicity Lott’s calibre. There was nothing, other than novelty, to compensate for this for the listener, even in the intimate environment of the Music Room. Flott sang beautifully as always but one sensed her frustration at not being able to sing full out, musician as she is, unable to ignore the balance between voice and guitar.
Matters were not helped by the unusual length of time Denoth spent tuning the guitar between songs which many in the audience found extremely irritating, as did apparently the singer. This could be ascribed either to nerves or to necessity. If the former it is just bad manners, if the latter he needs to find an instrument with more stable tuning.
Schubert accompanied by guitar may work in domestic surroundings with untrained voices. In a concert hall, even with the intimacy of the Holywell Music Room, with fully professional singers it seems like a major musical misjudgement
That the Festival was a major musical success, with full audiences, deserving of the widest critical acclaim must have been apparent even to those attending only one or two events from the ‘buzz’ inside and outside the auditorium. This must be Sholto Kynoch’s triumph. But many others contributed to the special character of the event: Martin Peters for the education programme (Schools and Masterclasses, led this year by Dame Felicity Palmer) and those giving pre-performance talks. One must not fail to mention those concerned with fund-raising without whose efforts Oxford Lieder could not exist: Peter Burrows, responsible for Development, and Hilary Forsyth, who looks after the social programme for individual supporters and much else. For the overall smooth running of the Festival, credit must again go to Laura Ashby, in charge of Administration. She does everything but sing. Next year may she also do that?
In 2012 the Festival will be held from 12 to 27 October. In 2013 Oxford Lieder will be playing a major role in the Britten in Oxford celebrations of the composer’s centenary, performing all his songs in a series of concerts throughout the year. (Did Britten write any lieder – see above!) It will be an opportunity to reassess this composer, so easily over- or under-rated.
For 2014 Oxford Lieder is planning a major and ambitious project, a Schubertiade, a Festival devoted to the works and the life and times of Franz Schubert, incorporating all his songs, as well as opera, chamber music and more, recreating ‘the cultural highlights of 1820s Vienna in the City of Oxford’. The event will have a strong pedagogical element. For the concert-goer this will pose challenging problems. Few will have the stamina or the powers of concentration to attend everything but how to make the selection? Does one go for the familiar or the less well-known? For the performer or the programme? I hope the organisers will bear in mind that the composer died aged thirty-one. Let us hear some younger voices in familiar works though few Lieder singers today have reached maturity at that age. Likewise, if we are truly celebrating 1820s Vienna, let us hear at least some concerts with contemporary piano, avoiding at one extreme the plucked guitar and at the other the monstrous - in the HMR ambience - Steinway ‘D’ (elephant in the Music Room?) This will be an event requiring the utmost dedication from the followers of Oxford Lieder as well as from the organisers and the performers. We shall follow progress as plans evolve.
19 November 2011