Oxford Lieder Festival 2006

'Art song' concert series. www.oxfordlieder.co.uk

October 29, 2006
Sat 28/10/2006, Jacqueline Du Pré Music Building: Susan Gritton & Eugene Asti

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.

October 28, 2006
Fri 27/10/2006, Holywell Music Room: Sarah Fox (soprano) and David Barnard (piano)

The Oxford Lieder Festival has come a long way since its first seven-concert run back in 2002. The 2006 festival, which is now drawing to a close, included nearly thirty concerts and masterclasses, in eight different venues, with a large number of both nationally- and internationally-acclaimed artists. Before moving on to Friday’s fantastic concert I think it fitting to sing the praises of all the people behind the scenes of the Oxford Lieder Festival and commend them for the huge amount of work that has gone into the organization of this impressive event.

The recital on Friday October 27th in the Holywell Music Room was given by soprano Sarah Fox, accompanied by David Barnard. It was a varied programme, with a first half of Mozart, Debussy, and Strauss, and a predominantly English second half (Quilter, Vaughan Williams, Britten). Sarah Fox is an electrifying singer, capable of a shimmering strength at the top of her range, and equally at ease in the warm, velvety lower end. She is at her absolute finest when animated, and this programme gave her ample opportunity to showcase her expressive talents and manipulate the emotions of her audience. David Barnard was a fine counterpart for Fox, accompanying her musically and sensitively, notwithstanding a very few moments of shaky ensemble. Barnard displayed an obvious technical mastery and virtuosity without over shadowing the singer.

The highlights of the concert included the Mozart cantata, Die ihr des unermeßlichen Weltalls, and Quilter’s setting of It was a Lover and his Lass, which Fox managed to make sound like art-song rather than an offering from a school madrigal society. The programme was capped with Britten’s Cabaret Songs – a fabulous final set that showed Sarah Fox to be as captivating, if not more so, in this genre as in the more conventional song repertoire.

October 16, 2006
Mon 16/10/2006, Holywell Music Room: Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch

After a full day's work and a lengthy commute home Monday night, I wasn't sure if I had it in me to cope with another bus ride to town for a voice recital. But even before the first note, at the point when singer and accompanist take their first synchronised breaths, I knew I had made the right choice. Held at Holywell Music Room, the evening's programme was comprised of the complete 'Italienisches Liederbuch', a 46-song group by 19th century Austrian composer Hugo Wolf, and featured baritone William Berger, soprano Lucy Crowe who substituted for Ruby Hughes, out with a throat infection, and pianist John Reid.

Though most of the pieces of the 'Liederbuch' are short, they require a well-trained, disciplined and, frequently, larger voice to navigate the many emotional and melodic twists and turns, which Ms Crowe and Mr Berger offered in spades. Hearing 'Laß sie nur gehn, die so Stolze spielt' (Let her go, then, if she acts so proud), one can see why one of Wolf's earliest champions was a Wagnerian tenor. However, like a whisper in a noisy room, the best moments were the subtle ones, in particular 'Sterb' ich, so hüllt in Blumen meine Glieder' (If I should die, then shroud my limbs in flowers) in which Mr Berger deftly maintained the energy to sustain him through a line that required the gentlest touch. Ms Crowe, on the other hand, was assigned the more spirited and feisty songs of the evening, though she was able to spread her wings on some of the more luxurious pieces. Her finest moment, or at least my favourite, came in 'O wär' dein Haus durchsichtig wie ein Glas' (If only your house were transparent like glass). There was a looseness and flow to her interpretation she hadn't had been allowed on other pieces.

John Reid's playing was as confident and assured as I imagine the cocky and exuberant Wolf's might have been. He particularly took advantage of the ample opportunities within the arrangements to exploit their range of expression, chromaticism and a propensity to put off harmonic resolution for as long as is possible.

I cannot lie: I am a fan of a well-trained voice, so I was a very happy listener that night. If you have a chance to come out to some of the performances during the festival, I think you'll understand why.

October 15, 2006
Sat 14/10/2006, Jacqueline Du Pré Music Building: Sophie Daneman & Julius Drake

We were treated to some very fine singing last night at the Oxford Lieder Festival in a concert featuring soprano Sophie Daneman and accompanist Julius Drake. Though Ms Daneman seemed nervous at first, probably owing to the fact that the recorded performance will be the Festival's first-ever CD release next week, she soon settled in, and both she and Mr Drake seemed to really enjoy themselves.

It is a genuine pleasure to hear such well-written and ably-performed music; however, perhaps chosen with the CD in mind, the programme was conventional even for my taste, and on the following lines: start with something in English (Haydn), follow up with some of the core repertoire in a foreign language (Schumann, Poulenc), sprinkle in a few of the 'hits' (morsels from the Italiensches Liederbuch and one of the Mignons), be sure to include something a bit more contemporary (if the 1960s can still be referred to as contemporary), then prove you're cool by finishing off with a little 20th century popular song (Cole Porter). It certainly lacked the kind of depth that would motivate me to buy a copy for my own collection. (As a novelty Christmas gift for a friend, maybe, or to support the Festival however...)

Nonetheless, liberated from being told what to think about the performers before I had even heard them (I didn't bring enough for the £6 programme book, just £1 for translations), I found Ms Daneman's soprano warm if a bit breathy. This criticism might be a function, again, of taste as I tend to prefer more of a pointed sound with a bit more 'bite'. Her phrasing and interpretation were earnest, though, if typical of recital theatrics. However, it can't be easy to switch from being humorous, to coquettish, to despairing at the drop of a hat as is required of the art song recitalist, and I have to give Ms Daneman her props.

The concert was loaded with passion-full moments, and in the places when it all came together - e.g. Wolf's 'Wir haben beide lange Zeit geschwiegen' ('For a long time we had both been silent'), and a humorous Cole Porter encore about a regurgitated oyster given a taste of high society - it was exemplary. I was particularly impressed at how smoothly Mr Drake recovered the performance from a botched lyric in Gounod's 'Au Rossignol'. But that's part of the excitement of live chamber music, which I dearly love and don't get to hear of this calibre every day. All of the coughing, squeaky chairs, courtesy giggles for lyrics that really aren't that funny or audible sighs can't change that.

October 15, 2006
Fri 13/10/2006, St. Aldates Church: Dame Felicity Lott (soprano) & Maciej Pikulski (piano)

What a treat! As an opening night for this year’s Lieder Festival the organisers could not have wished for a better performance. A recital of works by Schumann, Strauss, Hahn, Yvain, Messager and Coward was stunningly presented by the extraordinary Dame Felicity Lott and her accomplished accompanist Maciej Pikulski.

As a venue for such delicate music, St. Aldates Church is ideal. It is acoustically superb and lends itself perfectly to what, despite the large audience, felt like an intimate performance. The sympathetically-proportioned building and receptive audience brought the very best from Dame Felicity in a programme that delivered wistfulness, beauty, love and humour.

The first half of the evening began with Schumann and gardens: flowers (roses to the fore) dominated – Die Blumer der Ergebung and Röselein, Röselein amongst them – and allowed Dame Felicity to show the delicacy and tone of her beautiful voice. Marienwürmchen ('Ladybird') and Kinderwacht ('Watching over Children') showed touches of the greater depth and control that were to come. Richard Strauss’ more operatic demands meant a raising of the musical stakes; this was effortlessly effected by both performers. The first half of the performance ended with a magnificent rendition of Zueignung ('Dedication') that drew rapturous applause from a delighted audience.

Moving effortlessly from faultless German to impeccable French, Dame Felicity opened the second half with the wonderful Y a des arbres ('There are trees') by Hahn, following it with two other pieces by the same composer. The second of these, C’est très vilain d’être infidèle ( It is very bad to be unfaithful) was as superb a piece of comedic delivery as I have seen in this form, and showed Dame Felicity’s comic timing to great effect. Equally, Mr. Pikulski was an adept comic foil (with more than a touch of Chico Marx in his playing style where appropriate!).

Two pieces by Yvain and a final French number – J’ai deux amants ('I have two lovers') by Messager – were also delivered chock full of fun and emotion. The light hearted theme was rounded off by spirited renditions of four Noël Coward numbers; finishing with the darkly comic A Bar on the Piccola Marina. The performers left to rapturous and thoroughly deserved applause, returning for two delightful encores.

This was a superb performance; enhanced by the humour and warmth of Dame Felicity, and the appropriateness of the venue. I am delighted to have been there to enjoy it.
Thu 26/10/2006, Hoywell Music Room: Schubert's Winterreise with James Gilchrist (tenor) & Julius Drake (piano)

Schubert's Winterreisse is one of the great glories of the Lieder repertoire, but it is also one of the most taxing, and James Gilchrist proves that he is not only up to the job, but gives a definitive performance.

James is a performer of great courtesy and charm, with a rich voice to boot. In a recital context he is in his element, taking control effortlessly whilst allowing us to reassess a work of great importance through him. Any accomplished artist can perform, but only the best give an audience the sense that they are hearing a well-known piece for the first time, and for their benefit.

Throughout the song-cycle, James showed enormous discipline, dropping to a whisper of sound in one word only to rise to thunder in the next. I loved the way that the restrained second stanza in the first song gave way to the forceful declamation "Die Liebe liebt das Wandern" ('love loves to wander'), but when repeated, there was an added longing to the words, as if his observation needed reassurance. It was refreshing to hear this verse without all the patina of contempt that convention has given it in performance. Suddenly, I heard in it regret and doubt. Again, he coloured the words, "Das ihr erstarrt", with an icy hint of horror and at the end of Gefrorne Tränen ('frozen tears'), the voice is alone as the piano is left to folk music. In the animated fourth song, James finds desperation, not just intensity, in "Blumen" and "erstorben" as his character clings in vain to his lost love, looking for flowers in winter and finding them withered. The weariness in Der Rücken fühlte keine Last was made all the more acute by the contrasting dynamics in the line "So brennen ihre Wunden" ('so fiercely my wounds burn'), and again this intelligent performance brought to life a moment and a progress through the cycle that I had not appreciated before. The irony in this poem (the tenth) seems to sum up the Winterreise - though "my back felt no burden", yet the burden is certainly there! My mind says one thing, my body another - or here, the words say this and the piano does that. The poems, maybe slight, maybe gay or their order perhaps rearranged, take on a richer life when set to music, and both those words and ideas take on yet a further life of their own in performance. (As the splendid Roderick Swanson pointed out in his informative pre-show talk, many great poets from Goethe to TS Eliot have been wary of composers' attempts to set their words to music - he drew chuckles from his audience when he observed that after his death, Eliot's widow finally granted permission for some of his poems to be set - by Lord Lloyd Webber.)

A long way from Harry Potter, another Hermione observed that "A sad Tale's best for Winter". With the clocks about to change, Winterreise is a well-timed recital. There seemed to me, for the first time, some reality in all the sadness, and all the regret. It also seemed psychologically true, moving from the longing and fury of the first few songs to desperation and urgency as the "singer" realises his lover is gone for good. This, in the final stanza of poem seven - when the piano plays the tune and the voice is given a more conversational urgency - drifts into an insanity of grief which continues into poem eight. But in James' performance, there is still innocence and optimism until thoughts of suicide and a fresh harsher blast of madness tumble into defiant bitterness and melancholy. I have no idea how the last song fits into this, but there seemed to be some sort of resolution, and I did not feel this was as bleak, hollow and exhausted as it may often appear, as there was something powerful in the stillness. (Both the composer and the poet died shortly after writing this work.)

Tomorrow I may awaken and realise that Winterreise is indeed as grim and miserable as everyone believes it to be, and that I have simply fallen under the spell of a thrilling performer who filled me with joy; that I have been privileged to listen to a instrument of great beauty and discipline. But tonight, I feel that I have been granted an insight into one of the great works of music. I am bewitched.
This was the third soprano recital I had heard in as many days, and one of the amazing things is how different and how memorable each voice has been. Tonight it was the passionate, untamed voice of Joana Seara in an unusual programme. Ms Seara was accompanied by Sholto Kynoch, if 'accompanied' is the word: the piano parts were extraordinarily descriptive and atmospheric, and the two performers each moved back and forth between foreground and background.

We began with three Purcell songs, arranged by Britten, which gave way to a cycle by William Walton – ‘Songs for the Lord Mayor’s Table’ – a romp through various aspects of London - its wealth, its beauty and its power – as well as the very touching ‘Wapping Old Stairs’ in which Molly gently upbraids her Tom for wanting to walk in the Mall with ‘Susan from Deptford and likewise with Sal’. It was in this group of songs that I felt both singer and pianist excelled themselves.

After the interval came some early Schubert – sad, and beautiful, after which there was an extraordinary collection of songs about ‘Woodland Deities’ by Respighi. These were memorable for the descriptive writing for the piano. The recital ended with a cycle of songs by Wolf-Ferrari – another excursion into a romantic and passionate mixture of nature and the erotic.

This is the fifth Oxford Lieder Festival. It has become far more than a series of concerts. There is a real sense of community, among the singers and the audience.

Long may it continue. This year's Festival continues until Saturday: www.oxfordlieder.co.uk
Sun 22/10/2006, Holywell Music Room. Elizabeth Watts (sop), Roger Vignoles (piano). Schumann's Kerner Lieder & Dichterliebe

I was quite charmed by Elizabeth Watts' recital on Sunday afternoon. Yes, indeed, it was not quite Schumann's Dichterliebe, and nor was it John Mark Ainsley, who has fallen ill, but from the opening of the much lighter Suleika 1 by Schubert to the astounding encore of a rather obscure 1950s setting by Aaron Copland of Emily Dickenson's bizarre poem, "Why do they shut me out of heaven because I sing too loud?", Elizabeth Watts did us proud!

I hope I am not alone in admitting that I find the Suleika name only ever reminds me of Max Beerbohm. That aside, I was pleased that in his introduction, Roger Vignoles pointed out that even Schubert believed the Suleika poems he set were by Goethe, so there is an air of mystery and deception that has always clung to this name and that work. Sulieka 1 ('to the east wind') is in fact based on a poem by Marianne von Willemer, a woman with whom Goethe corresponded for a 14 month period (and it went no further than letters, I understand). The words themselves, however, are loaded with rich images, and Schubert's music picks up on their naughtiness and implicit eroticism. It is a tricky piece to try first, but I was impressed. This was followed by Im Abendrot, an enchanting evening hymn, that would have made a good encore in a different programme. This Schubert section was finished with Die Manner sind mechant which nicely brought out Elizabeth's gift for drama: it is a haughty piece in which a young girl realises that men cannot be trusted - and over the course of the song, there was some studying of her fingernails followed by a sharp look and stern condemnation, but what struck me most was the easy conversational manner she found, and it is no suprise to see from her biography that she has done time at ENO and played roles like Papagena and is soon to be Susannah in (presumably Jeremy Sams' witty translation of) the Marriage of Figaro. With a talent for handling the recitative-style like this, and her clarity of diction, it's no wonder she's sought-after.

While the Schubert was good, the Debussy, which made a very comfortable transition to the interval, was excellent. The French was assured and the playfulness always just beneath the surface. I loved the Fantouches and, as in the earlier Liane, there were some nice opportunities for Elizabeth to showcase her lower register. A friend in the audience said that he felt she reminded him of a young Dame Margaret Price and my own guest, who had never before listened to lieder, was completely caught up in the programme and in Elizabeth's wondrous performance.

Rachmaninov allowed the pianist, Roger Vignoles, to shine, though again, he was eclipsed and there were a couple of times when I knew I was genuinely looking at a new star: Elizabeth's take on the Victor Hugo setting Oni otverchali ('they answered') and even the Pushkin poem that laments the mess (as ever) in Georgia (Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne - 'do not sing, my beauty, to me!'), had a lightness and a joy, indeed a twinkle in the eye. Her Russian diction had real colour and her delivery to a house that she held in the palm of her hand betrayed an intimacy and, I think, a confession that this girl simply loves to sing.

Five love songs by Richard Strauss completed the recital, and though I can fully understand why Hat gesagt was last, Elizabeth's performance of Schlechtes Wetter (made all the more relevant by the shower we endured in order to get to the concert) was sensational, and her enjoyment of it obvious.

I am certain Elizabeth Watts has a very fine career ahead of her and I am grateful to have been present at one of her earlier concerts. She is already the winner of this year's Kathleen Ferrier Award, and I am sure more awards and bigger audiences await her. She deserves to do well, and Sholto Kynoch (the affable Festival Director) is to be commended for finding such a satisfying alternative to an afternoon with Mr Ainsley.

Incidentally, for the duration of the festival, friends of the Oxford Lieder Festival get free membership of the QI Club on Turl Street. All this, and the chance to listen to such great music too!
Thu 19/10/2006: Lunch with Schumann. Maciek O’Shea (baritone) with Jennie-Helen Moston (piano)

This lunchtime recital presented Shumann’s Liederkreis, one of several performances at this year’s festival, with songs in English by Britten and Vaughan Williams. Maciek O’Shea is a striking figure of a performer, whose operatic voice comfortably fills the room, and who does the expressive eyes thing that you often find in this style of performance. However, I get the impression that here is a man who longs to be a bit more physically expressive than he feels he is allowed to, keeping his feet largely rooted to the spot while swaying about as if suppressing the urge to move about the stage.

Shumann’s Liederkreis is a work largely concerned with love gone sour, and though I am not particularly fluent in German, with the help of the translations provided I would say that the drama of the piece was well expressed. Jennie-Helen Moston, the pianist, is glamourous without being flamboyant, holding it together neatly.

The second half of the performance begins with a selection of four pieces from Benjamin Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. This begins with a promisingly chilly chromatic descent on the piano, but rather fails to maintain the excitement. I think the problem is largely that the text is delivered so slowly and with such gravitas that there is no chance of it standing up as melody, and the poetry is not strong enough to justify this manner of delivery. That’s more a complaint about the composition than the performance, but it also becomes apparent that the translation sheet could really have done with a print-out of the English lyrics as well, as the singer has a slight accent (Polish, I think, but that’s a guess) which makes it slightly hard to figure out the words (plus there is a trade-off between volume and vowel clarity in unamplified classical singing; look up ‘singing formant’ to find out why).

After the first few notes of the third piece, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs, I can tell we are in for a treat, as I remember singing this in the choir at school, albeit with the rather fuller accompaniment of the pipe organ (it was that kind of school). The five songs have texts by George Herbert, concerned mostly with God’s love, but with poetry beautiful enough to appeal to a cynical atheist like me, and the composer has produced something very fine, with luscious, almost jazzy harmonies, and a dreamlike, melifluous quality to much of the vocal line. The final selection, Antiphon, summons up a clangour of bells and angel trumpets, and is nothing short of a glorious finish to today’s performance.
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