Lieder and more
Oxford Lieder: The Schumann Project - the light and shade of romanticism, various venues, Oxford, 14 – 29 October 2016.
My German piano teacher, on hearing that I spent all my Sunday mornings playing for a Dutch mezzo, told me I could not possibly play Schumann songs without first being thoroughly immersed in German Romanticism. This presented problems, since I am not a romantic (for example preferring Elgar to Mahler) and I don’t speak German. Nevertheless, we got a great deal of pleasure in exploring this repertoire and becoming at least superficially familiar with most of the music performed at this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival.
The Festival opened on 14 October with a Carnival of Pianos, with six half-hour piano recitals surveying Schumann’s output. This was followed by the customary Schools Project Concert, in which local schoolchildren had over weeks produced their own song cycle and a Festival Chorus Concert, who had prepared part-songs with members of The Sixteen. The opening concert was given in the evening by the renowned baritone Christian Gerhaber but it was given in the Sheldonian so I did not attend.
Our immersion in Romanticism began on the Saturday morning, the first of two study days devoted to the life and times of Robert Schumann – lecture recitals led by Graham Johnson who accompanied the four singers Geraldine McGreevy (soprano), Anna Huntley (mezzo), Ben Johnson (tenor) and Mark Stone (baritone). Graham Johnson stressed the literary sources of Schumann’s inspiration, derived from his being born into a family of book-sellers. Following a Prologue of a setting of H-C Andersen, the earliest song performed was from 1828, inspired by Schumann’s first muse, a family servant (from whom, it is conjectured, he contracted syphilis). The remainder were all composed in 1840, the year of his marriage, and included settings of Heine, Byron, Goethe, Thomas Moore, and Robert Burns. This amazing outpouring included the cycles Myrten, Dichterliebe Frauenliebe und -leben and the Op.39 Liederkreis. Of the remainder, the song which stood out (unknown to me) was der Hidalgo by Emanuel Geibel.
On the Sunday immersion continued with a Study Day, Schumann’s Friends and Followers with 30 minute lectures. I attended the lunchtime Lyrisches Intermezzo devoted to the performance of sixty-five (!) poems by Heinrich Heine, most of them read by Viennese actor Cornelius Obonya, except for those set by Schumann as part of Dichterliebe and elsewhere. sung by a very fine dramatic baritone Klemens Sander with Kynoch (piano). This brought to the fore the poet’s ironic sense of humour, little appreciated by non- German speakers.
The second life and times session After his Marriage was held on the following Saturday. This time the singers were Lucy Knight (replacing Mary Bevan), Anna Huntley, as before, who also played a piano duet with Johnson, Robin Tritschler, tenor, and Jonathan Lemalu, a magnificent baritone. Graham Johnson took up the story from September 1840, the month of Schumann’s marriage. In November, he wrote Kerner Lieder after the eponymous complex medical friend and poet. After that there were no further songs until 1847, though the composer was very productive in other ways, though disappointed at never producing a successful opera. Clara bore him eight children, as well as acting as guardian to orphaned grandchildren and pursuing a career as composer and pianist. During this period, they became acquainted with many composers, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Wagner, Berlioz, and the twenty-year-old Brahms was welcomed into the family as interpreter of their piano music. Johnson gave a very moving year by year account of their lives in prosperity and adversity, moving from city to city as circumstances changed, to Robert’s madness and premature death in 1856 at the age of forty-six. Proceedings ended with an extended period of reflective silence.
There were too many great recitals to report individually, but the first, devoted to songs and duets by both Robert and Clara Schumann was truly remarkable. It was given by Sophiie Karthäuser (heard at Glyndebourne as Héro in Béatrice et Bénedict) and Sarah Connolly with Eugéne Asti. Both thorough professionals, the singers adapted immediately to the acoustics of the Holywell Music Room and despite Connolly suffering effects of a cold, their singing was divine. The voices blended perfectly in the duets and one wished for more of them.
An innovation this year (in addition to the electronic scanning of tickets) was the introduction of two screens at the back of the stage displaying the texts and translations. These were a mixed blessing, a struggle to read for the elderly. Instead of four options for following the proceedings, reading the texts from the programmes or watching the performers, with or without reading glasses, now there are six, watching the screen with and without glasses. At least one knew when a song was coming to an end when the screens went blank.
Robert’s wedding gift to Clara, the song cycle Myrten was given as the second part of the concert given on the first Monday evening of the Festival. The twenty-six songs (one for each letter of the alphabet) were divided between two superb interpreters, soprano Joan Rodgers and the versatile German baritone Dietrich Herschell with Kynoch. It is a strange collection for the occasion and Clara’s reaction is not recorded. It contains many of the composer’s most beautiful and best known songs. British poets are well represented: no fewer than five by Robert Burns and by Byron and Thomas Moore.
The first Tuesday evening concert provided some relief from Schumann. Remembered from previous years for her histrionic performances, Birgid Steinberger with Julius Drake together gave dramatic interpretations of Schubert and Brahms, including the complete set of Goethe’s Mignon settings
I studied Frauenliebe und -leben with a Danish soprano some years ago. Disconcertingly she burst into tears at the end of our first complete run-through. Anne Sofie von Otter’s recording is disappointing – she is certainly not steeped in German Romanticism. It has been performed twice at previous Festivals, in 2006 by a young singer completely out of her depth; ironically in the same programme she sang Benjamin Britten’s Teach me the Truth about Love! But in 2008 Sarah Connolly with Eugéne Asti gave a performance of which I wrote: Connolly’s vocal interpretation made their performance of Frauenliebe und –leben almost perfect, bringing the audience to the brink of tears despite the unfashionability of the sentiments. (This was even more surprising since it was the first time I had heard the singer outside trouser-roles in baroque opera.) This year the task was assigned to renowned soprano Juliane Banse in her first Festival appearance with pianist Marcelo Amaral. This was a fine performance despite the singer’s cold, though not as moving as Connolly. The pianist was very good, breezing his way through the Mendelssohn and Brahms which opened the concert but sometimes a little detached in Schumann. The programme ended with the late five Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart, one of the discoveries of the Festival.
A high point of the Festival should have been the concert on the second Tuesday with Mark Padmore and Simon Lepper performing Kerner Lieder. The concert opened with ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ given to a young duo. soprano Nika Gorič with Christina Zerafa who performed one work, Schubert’s lengthy Vergissmeinnicht. This was an enjoyable performance, even if not matching up to Kynoch’s glowing introduction. Padmore continued with a delightful set of flower-related songs by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The second half of the concert consisted of five songs Op.127 and the twelve Kerner Lieder by Schumann. Padmore confessed it was the first time he had sung these works and it was apparent that he was not completely at ease. There was exquisite piano playing by Lepper but they did not gel as a duo. Nevertheless, the greatness of the songs came across.
The next day there came a real treat – a rare performance of the original piano accompanied version of the hour-long cantata Der Rose Pilgefahrt. This followed a short group of works given by the eminent bass Robert Holl, including another chance to hear the Declamation Schöne Hedwig. Holl, who had suggested including the cantata in the Festival, sang the gravedigger and other roles and conducted the ten-voice choir. The Pilgrimage of the Rose tells the sentimental story of a rose who takes human form so long as she has a rose in her grasp. Her travels take her first to a gravedigger and then to a miller and his wife who have recently lost a daughter, betrothed to a grieving forester. Rose takes her place in their affections, marries and bears a daughter, to whom she releases her rose. I found the theme to have resonances with Rusalka for the taking of human form and with The Cunning little Vixen for the generational renewal. Rose was charmingly sung by Austrian soprano Christina Gansch, winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2014 but spotted the year before at an OSJ Prom at the Ashmolean. Other parts were taken by mezzo Bethan Langford, tenor Ben Johnson and baritone Mark Stone. (In her memoires, Eugénie Schumann, the seventh child, quotes a letter from Robert to his mother, announcing her birth in 1851, also mentioning the completion of the orchestration.)
James Gilchrist appeared several times at the Festival, including a recital with his duo partner Anna Tilbrook. They performed four groups of songs, two by Schumann, including Songbook of a Painter, a group by Brahms and the four Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen by Mahler. They reaffirmed themselves as a leading duo and he as a supreme interpreter of lieder with full ranges of gesture and tonal quality. Unusually there was not a packed house for their recital. Among many, this stood out as a contender for the best of the Festival. It was unusual to hear the Mahler with piano rather than the more natural orchestral accompaniment but Tilbrook rose to the challenge.
On the penultimate evening, there was yet another exceptional pair of young singers. The Swedish soprano Malin Christensson, standing in at short notice for Kate Royal, and the baritone Johannes Kammler. In the first half, they sang fur groups of songs by Schumann; but made their mark after the interval when Christensson sang four songs from Myrten and Kammler sang four by Mendelssohn and they concluded with four duets by Schumann. Christenson has a beautiful silky tone with a slight Swedish accent. Kammler has a vast dynamic range, equally secure from pianissimo to fortissimo.
There were ten weekday one-hour lunchtime recitals. The first two were a fascinating contrast. Established singers Mhairi Lawson and Stephan Loges with Eugene Asti performed a beautifully structured programme Scenes from Childhood with songs by Robert Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms, interlaced with piano pieces for the young, which included seven settings of poems by Elizabeth Kulmann who died in 1825, aged seventeen. Five more of her songs were performed at the second concert given by newcomers, winners of the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards, Soraya Mafi and Gemma Lois Summerfield in a programme notable for duets by Mendelssohn and Schumann. Their fresh, young voices were sympathetically supported by a remarkably accomplished Ian Tindale, who must surely be destined to take a place among the great lieder pianists. On Thursday, we heard the young baritone Benjamin Appl, already well-known to Radio3 listeners as a BBC New Generation Artist (a coming new Roddy Williams?). He was partnered by pianist Gary Matthewson (who, I noted, gained a standing ovation with Nicholas Merryweather in 2010). This was a marvelous recital, Poetry Declaimed, of works by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, including several declamatory verses set by Schumann, including the extended Ballad of a Moorland Boy by the poet CF Hebbel. On the Monday of the second week, the incomparable Roderick Williams, himself, performed Schubert’s Schwannengesang, with Susie Allen, a regular partner, though one I have not heard before. As usual, he commanded attention with his perfect stillness and deliberate tempi, focusing attention on the texts. A delightful recital entitled Songs of the Young given by the ever-delightful Sophie Daneman and Mark Stone with Kynoch was In two parts, the first Schumann’s childhood songs. Then came The Thought Machine commissioned by Oxford Lieder from a young poet Cheryl Frances-Hood (b 1980) settings of highly amusing children’s verses by Kate Wakeling full of rhymes and assonances such as, from Skig the Warrior: … more the worrier. He didn’t want to spear deer or pillage villages or hoot and toot when the crew looted … .
In this review, I have concentrated on vocal music but there was much else, with chamber music by Robert Schumann, Clara and their elders (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn) and juniors (Brahms, Mahler). There were fine performances of Robert’s Piano Quartet and Quintet, which it was interesting to hear in the historical context, slight works overshadowed by those of Brahms. I attended a piano recital by Bengt Forsberg in which he played Schumann’s last piano work the Geistervariationen (recently heard also at the Oxford Chamber Music Festival in a sensitive performance by Imogen Cooper) followed by ten variations on the same theme for piano, four hands by Brahms, with Christopher Glyn (a far more substantial work, it has to be said). Forsberg alone manages to bring out a delicate tone from the monstrous Steinway provided for the Festival.
The usual Mastercourse was this year directed by Wolfgang Holzmair and took place in Headington School with a concert on the final day. There were other masterclasses for amateurs.
The Festival Finale in Saint John the Evangelist was a fitting conclusion to two weeks of intense music making. The performers were Alish Tynan, soprano (who opened the fourth Lieder Festival in 2005), Kitty Whately, mezzo, James Gilchrist, tenor and Jacques Imbraglio, baritone with pianists Bengt Forsberg and Sholto Kynoch. The voices blended perfectly in a programme of solos and ensembles, opening with eight Rückert settings, Minnespiel, followed by little known piano duets from Bilder aus Osten. After the interval came the Spanischers Liebeslieder with piano duet accompaniment and the concert concluded with Bei Schenkung eines Flügels which came with the gift of a piano for Clara’s birthday (maybe the one on view at the Festival).
In summarising, it is impossible to select highlights – there were too many of them. If forced to select one, I would choose James Gilchrist celebrating twenty years’ partnership with pianist Anna Tilbrook. But what of Schumann? We heard much beautiful music, much little known but the question is raised: why is he always associated so deeply with German Romanticism? Is it that other great composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries transcend the spirit of their age in a way that Schumann does not? I leave the question open.
The organisation of the Festival this year has taken a leap forward in professionalism. Under the Administrative Director Taya Smith, a newly designed website by Tom King has enabled online booking for all events. This has allowed the friendly Box Office Manager Victoria Carmichael to take good care of those with special seating requirements. An anonymously edited Festival Guide contains ten essays by distinguished contributors on aspects of Schumann’s life and work and gives full details of all those taking part. Mugs, bags, CDs, pencils and other merchandise was aggressively marketed at each concert, all to support not only the Festival but also other activities such as the Young Artist Platform. This year, too, the BBC recorded several concerts, broadcast the week following.
Many people, apart from the performers, contributed to the success of the Festival but without the presiding genius of Artistic Director and pianist Sholto Kynoch it could not have happened.