A Schubert Dip
Last Friday evening’s splendid concert in the Sheldonian marked the start of the remarkable Oxford Lieder Festival for 2014, The Schubert Project. It’s remarkable because for the first time ever in the UK all of Schubert’s 650 songs will be performed in this one Festival over the course of the next 23 days and 64 concerts. The challenge is massive and the Project programme is packed with concerts, masterclasses by world-class singers, interesting talks and even Viennese-themed food events. There’s something for everyone.
But what of last night’s brilliant opener? This was indeed a celebrity start to The Schubert Project, with an all-star group of three tenors (John Mark Ainsley, James Gilchrist and Daniel Norman), four equally brilliant baritones (Neal Davies, William Dazeley, Stephan Loges, and Christopher Maltman), and a cameo from one amazing mezzo, Sarah Connolly CBE. The Festival’s founder and artistic director, the very special Sholto Kynoch, accompanied these artistes magnificently on the piano. There were to have been four tenors, but one had to drop out and so the programme was re-jigged a little, with the other tenors doubling up. They completed the original programme apart from 'Die Nachtigall', so one assumes that the nightingale will have to be put into another show if they are to complete the quest. Listen out for it!The songs chosen for this curtain-raiser were an interesting mixture of the well-known and some more neglected, yet still perfect, little gems. They were grouped thematically, so the first section’s theme was boating, and the poems used were mostly written by Schubert’s pal Johann Mayrhofer. I particularly enjoyed their four-part 'Gondelfahrer', sung with tremendous gusto. Then there was a death theme, with 'Der Tod und das Mädchen' movingly sung to an appreciative and, I would guess from their reaction, highly knowledgeable audience. Three Italian settings from the outstanding Neal Davies finished the half: charming operatic songs about relationships, the last being the wryly delivered 'Il modo di prender moglie'.
The high quality of performance continued after the interval with sections on spring and the solar system, the latter including 'Nacht und Träume', sung wonderfully by William Dazeley. The audience was spellbound during his stunning performance. Sarah Connolly then came on to rapturous applause and gave us her solo, 'An Die Musik', appropriately giving thanks for music, and in a superb finale, all eight singers performed together Schubert’s lovely serenade 'Zögernd leise'.
And that was it. There were flowers but no encore. Honestly, I would have been delighted had they started at the beginning and worked through the whole concert again, it was that good.
The Oxford Lieder Festival continues at various locations in Oxford until 1st November