A review of three events at the Oxford Lieder Festival: Wandering Winter Poets; Heine, Schumann & Brahms; and The Wanderer (October 12th, 2021)
Every performance of Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.24 is eagerly awaited. This one did not disappoint – quite the contrary – and for two reasons. First, within the Oxford Lieder Festival’s theme (“Nature’s Songbook”) it formed part of a whole day devoted to “Romantic Wanderings”. The first three events (reviewed here) placed the song cycle neatly between two illustrated talks exploring some of the key features of German Romanticism and, before that, the poetry of Heinrich Heine and Wilhelm Müller. And second, Liederkreis was performed by Konstantin Krimmel, described in the festival brochure (justifiably, as it turned out) as “one of today’s most exciting young baritones”.
The outer events which framed the recital offered first of all wide-ranging insights into two poets who are at the heart of nineteenth-century German Lieder, and the relationship between them. Joanna Neilly, Associate Professor in German at Oxford University, set the scene for all that was to follow in “Wandering Winter Poets” by illustrating the differing approaches to both romanticism and the rising nationalism of the time in Germany. Both Heine and Müller were well-known in their day, and the relationship between them grew stronger as what Neilly referred to as “Romanticism’s winter” set in. Heine himself felt enormous respect and admiration for his contemporary, praising him for his approach to folksong, acknowledging his influence on his own writing, and declaring that he “found true sounds and pure simplicity in (the work of) Müller”. A century and a half or more later, Müller is now barely known except through settings of his poems, perhaps by Schubert in particular, whereas Heine, despite major difficulties he suffered during his life, has joined the pantheon of immortal German Romantic writers.
Neilly took the audience on a whistle-stop tour through their world, placing both among contemporaries including Novalis, Schlegel, Tieck, Eichendorff and Mörike, and in the context of political events of the time. She has the gift of engaging directly with an audience, bringing them along on her journey as she delved into the very nature of wandering and travel, of a longing for home, explaining precisely how wandering itself had become a part of the romantic tradition. She reminded us of the irony that characterises both poets’ writing, of the frequent references also to death (even obliquely in Müller’s Die Winterreise in which the inn is likened to a graveyard), and, in the second session entitled “The Romantic Wanderer”, of how in the romantic imagination, wandering itself had connotations of loneliness and alienation. The natural world formed the backdrop to so many of the tales and ballads, yet, as we heard, German romantic poetry was often also “scientifically informed”, since the poets were consciously living in the real, contemporary world with all its material and social challenges. No-one exemplified that more vividly than Goethe, whose Erlkönig poem was used to dramatic illustrative effect. At the same time, the poets were trying to understand the natural world itself, including what was not directly visible to the observer, and seeking, as Neilly put it, “eternity in ourselves”, the spirit world.
These two outer events were of course musically inspired. The baritone Malachy Frame interspersed a range of German romantic Lieder at various points in Joanna Neilly’s talks, focussing on Heine and Müller in particular, but including also texts by others mentioned by her. Frame opened with Schubert’s Das Wandern, in which Satoshi Kubo’s evocative accompanying was immediately heard to great effect as the piano became in turn the wandering miller, the water, the mill wheels and the heavy stones of the poem. Here were two artists collaborating warmly, a sense that continued in Mendelssohn’s Reiselied. Here the piano positively trembled as the wind shook the trees, while Frame’s baritone sensitively, almost operatically captured the eagerness of the rider’s young love before crashing metaphorically back to earth and reality: What do you want with your foolish dream?
Later, Malachy Frame’s tone became richer in his rendering of Schubert’s Mein! and then more intimate for the aching and longing of Schumann’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, before a positively virtuoso race through the same composer’s Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne. Back to Schubert for Frühlingstraum, where singer and pianist combined well to evoke the drama and almost spectral mood, before capturing perfectly the disintegration of all the poet’s dreams. The mood changed constantly: Frame’s image of the wanderer (in Wolf’s Denk’ es, o Seele) imagining his horse pulling his own coffin (chillingly reflected in Kubo’s funereal drumbeat at the end); and their crystal clear, ironic portrayal of the happy guests dancing at a wedding – while the bride weeps – in Schumann’s Auf einer Burg. The mini-recital came to its sombre conclusion with two Schubert settings: Die Nebensonnen, Frame expanding into vocal tone of high nobility while Suto transformed the piano yet again with his sonorous, almost organ-like chords; and finally, ending on a note perhaps more lugubrious and desolate than Neilly’s talks might have suggested, Der Leiermann – the persistent, eerie organ grinder relentlessly beckoning the poet towards death.
Konstantin Krimmel, accompanied by the outstanding pianist Marcelo Amaral, brought to the Schumann cycle and also to the selection of Brahms songs that complemented it, an immediacy and beguiling simplicity that had the audience enthralled from beginning to end. There was something almost naïve, vulnerable, innocent about Krimmel’s portrayal of so many different characters, each one more convincing than the last, covering the whole gamut of the romantic imagination and experience. He talks with his eyes, he sings with his heart, he wants you to love his characters and feel their angst, their joy.
Schumann’s Liederkreis which opened the recital proved the perfect vehicle for Krimmel and Amaral, who performed with the instinctive togetherness of a world class tennis doubles partnership. Already in Es treibt mich hin, with the piano bursting on to the scene at the start, Krimmel’s voice began in declamatory fashion before melting in sadness as the lover’s hopes are dashed. At the words du faules Volk he sang with positive venom, and we could see it in his eyes too. It would be tempting to try to convey the contrasting emotions of every song in the cycle as interpreted by Krimmel, so affecting were they. He makes key words (allein - alone) in Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen, for example) hang in the air; weh (pain) found him gazing disconsolately into the distance in the same song, as he spoke through his singing to each member of the audience individually, or so we felt, while Amaral gave us so much time to assimilate the ambiguous tonality of the song. As for the bitterness, self-pity, shock and thoughts of death in Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden, the duo had it all, and shared it passionately, the reprise emerging as though from the grave itself, while the final Lebe wohl was simply heartbreaking.
For the Brahms selection, this time their own, they had again compiled a group of songs that covered both the turbulent and the intimate, and brought together multiple themes from the Romantic period. Setting out on this journey in the little boat of Meerfahrt to the swaying lilt of Amaral’s playing, Krimmel conveyed all too vividly the joy of seeing the idyllic island only for it to be swept away as, desolate, he watches it pass by, unattainable. He then sang (and looked) like a man possessed and in another world in Wie rafft’ ich mich auf in der Nacht, those last three words of the title landing heavily again and again, the anguish all too plainly heard in his introspective singing. By contrast, in Wie bist du, meine Königin, Krimmel found an intensity that was more loving with each repetition of wonnevoll (blissfully). With his superb artistry, dreams became reality – and then dreams once again. Every consonant told us something about the poet, in Krimmel’s portrayal, not least the alliterative, luscious, limpid (Sie singt von) lauter Liebe in Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht. Terror was dispelled by lullaby melody – all was not gloom – there was hope – all seemed, at times, to be well with the world after all, such was the convincing power of this singing and playing, where even the silence at the end of Mondenschein, while we waited for that final chord on the piano, spoke eloquently.
These three events were a trio of delight, transporting us into the fantastical yet somehow real world of romantic nature as seen by those German poets and illuminated by the composers. Feelings at the end were summed up perfectly by Heine himself: Dann löst sich des Liedes Zauberbann – Then song’s magic spell breaks free.
It did. And we were all the richer for having been under it.