Last night's concert featuring soprano Susan Gritton and pianist Eugene Asti marked the end of the two-week long Oxford Lieder Festival, and I'm sad to see it go. For fans of good singing and of art songs in particular, it's been both a pleasure and a privilege to experience such a concentration of world-class talent performing live in our home town.
The recital began with Mozart's Die irh des unermesslichen Weltalls, K. 619. Written for the Freemasons (Mozart was a Mason), the piece feels like a song but is actually a miniature cantata comprised of an introduction and five sections with recitative. Classical music is full of delightful vignettes such as this, and it was great fun to get to hear it.
Some Wolf followed. If there's been a drawback to the Festival, it's that selections from Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch (Italian Songbook) were included on the programme of all three concerts I attended (plus one or two others I didn't). While it can be enlightening to experience a variety of interpretations of the same piece, there's so much more of Wolf's repertoire to enjoy which the Festival's organisers should have done more to encourage.
Oddly, last night's programme included a couple of last-minute changes: two of the Italienisches Liederbuch were omitted and the group of songs by Britten (On this Island, Op. 11) was moved before the Poulenc (Tel jour, telle nuit, Op. 86). Also unconventionally, Ms Gritton referred to her score throughout the concert. No explanation was given for this, and some audience members were seen to scramble in the interval for different seats so they could clearly see her face.
Though Ms Gritton often seemed to be holding back, she was at her most expressive during the music's more extreme moments. On more than a few occasions, however, she seemed to choke in the middle of a phrase - the sound simply stopped on its way out - leaving me to wonder if her breath was always as connected as it should be. It might have been that her desire to be dramatic came at the expense of solid technique, which I believe needn't be mutually exclusive.
Of the first half of the concert, I most enjoyed the songs by Schumann (Sechs Gedichte und Requiem, Op. 90) with their deliciously rich arrangements and melancholy lyrics by German poets Lenau and Dreves. Here Ms Gritton captured the thoughtful and intimate nature of Kommen und Scheiden (Meeting and Parting) perfectly. After the interval, the programme worked better for the singer who seemed to be most at home with the Poulenc and at her most expressive on the Britten. The poetry of each of these is difficult and may not be easily accessible to some in the audience - lyrically or harmonically - but to those of us who know a great deal of this music, it's a welcome challenge to the ears.
Mr Asti was quite the showman but not to the point of outshining the music. In fact there was no technical showiness at all, and the music seemed to flow through him unimpeded by ego. He might be the best accompanist I've seen live.
Art song festivals give us the opportunity to hear works we may only have heard on a recording - if at all. Any city would be lucky to have one, but given the high standards of singing and, tonight in particular, accompanying, we in Oxford are genuinely blessed to have ours.