It is always a wonderful time of the year when the Lieder Festival starts up again. Oxford is so privileged to have these world class singers and accompanists perform great music for us every year. 2021 is a special year for the Festival – as it marks the 20th time the event has been held (which is a huge achievement in and of itself) and it is also the return to having live audiences after the troubles of the past 18 months.
This year the theme for the Festival is Nature's Songbook, and there could not have been a more fitting opening concert than Schubert's ever-popular Die schöne Müllerin. Written in 1823, it is a simple tale of a young man falling in love only to face rejection and heartbreak. It is by turns romantic, lyrical and tragic with nature at the heart of the piece.
This performance was given by Simon Bode (tenor) and Simon Lepper (piano) – and it was, quite simply, brilliant. All too often with art song, it is very easy to be over earnest and measured in the performance side of things. Yes, this is serious, high quality music and requires meticulous preparation and skill but it is also an opportunity for storytelling and characterisation. Bode was able to combine his elegant technique with a real engagement with the text to bring the piece alive in a unique and moving way.
There is a line in one of the songs which describes the water in the brook as being 'frisch and wunderhell' (bright and wondrously clear) – and it is that phrase that stuck with me throughout as reflected Bode's approach to the piece. Every song was fresh, each poem clearly communicated. It felt like he was singing the songs for the first time and discovering meaning, nuance and texture in every bar. It never felt studied and it made the audience sit up and take notice throughout. To make a two hundred year old song cycle feel new is the mark of an artist.
At the piano, Simon Lepper was working marvels. It is a demanding score to play with the piano playing many characters in the drama, capturing the every shifting motion of water and every change in mood. It was alert, intelligent and supportive playing of the highest quality.
At the end of the performance, the audience was rewarded by a heartfelt rendition of Bist Du Bei Mir. A deceptively simple piece frequently attributed to JS Bach – though now believed to have been written by the little known Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel for his opera Diomedes. It showcased Bode's lyrical tenor to perfection and rounded out the event in an elegant and fitting way.
Thankfully it is a performance that can continue to be enjoyed for a number of weeks – as the high quality live streams are available until the end of November. Technology is making this event available to people all round the world – with tickets having been sold in more than 25 countries.