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Oxford Lieder Festival 2017

The Last of the Romantics, a two-week exploration of the life and music of Gustav Mahler and Vienna at the end of the Nineteenth Century.
Der Rosenkavalier (1926), to be accompanied by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the OLF 2017
Various venues across Oxford, Fri 13 October - Sat 28 October 2017

Gustav Mahler believed that a symphony should be like the world itself: "It must embrace everything." Fittingly, across the fortnight of this year's Oxford Lieder Festival, you'll find an all-embracing programme that would impress the figure at its centre.

Mahler was an equally adept composer of song, so expect to hear him played as well as discussed, in performances and lectures. The Vienna of his time is viewed in historical context - thus, the Festival presents tradition in the appealing form of Brahms' songs, piano duets and string quartets, and the future in the form of many exhilarating works by Richard Strauss and Schoenberg. For example, a screening of silent film Der Rosenkavalier (above) is accompanied by a suite from Strauss' opera of the same name; some of his greatest songs, written for his wife, appear in a dramatised programme with narration from Penelope Wilton. Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire will come to life at a late night performance in New College's atmospheric antechapel.

Indeed, the Festival takes in a number of great venues, including the Sheldonian, St John the Evangelist, the Holywell Music Room and more casual surroundings such as Waterstone's, with supper in The Vaults Café. Esteemed performers Sarah Connelly and Sir Thomas Allen are joined on the roster by newer talents Christina Sidak, Ashley Riches and the winners of the Oxford Lieder Young Artist Platforms. A world of song, then, a range of Viennese chamber music and much more to discover in free study events investigating the composers' intent behind these deathless works. Some events are sold out, so keep an eye on this page and the Festival site.

October 18, 2017
Songs from the East: Benjamin Appl & Graham Johnson, Holywell Music Room, Tuesday 17th October

The Oxford Lieder Festival is one of the cultural highlights of the year in so many ways. Amazing artists performing outstanding recitals in our city - what's not to love?

One of the hottest tickets this year has certainly been the return of Benjamin Appl after a triumphant concert last October. He is the leading interpreter of German Art Song of his generation, bringing a keen intelligence and a beautiful voice together in perfect harmony.

Over the past twelve months, his technique has become richer, his voice has acquired even more colours and his vocal acting even more alert to the nuances in the text. It is a mesmerising combination that leaves audiences spellbound - as I am sure all who were present in the packed Holywell Music Room will agree.

As ever with Appl, we were treated to a wide range of lieder both familiar and the more obscure. Everything was sung with enormous care and insight - with many moments of pure musical magic.

Three of the songs will live with me for a long time:

'Wie bist du, meine Konigen' by Brahms was sublimely sung; Appl's performance capturing the very essence of what it is to be in love. It was his colouring of the repeated 'wonnevoll' at the end of each stanza that made the interpretation come alive for me - subtle, varied and entrancing.

We got to see more of Appl's dramatic side in the second half with towering interpretation of Schumann's 'Belsazar'. It is a brilliant showcase for a singer who can also act and we got to see the full range of what Appl can achieve. Vocally it presents the singer with a number of challenges but he rose to them all. It is a performance like that that makes me ache to see him on the operatic stage - hopefully someone will cast him as Onegin soon!

The end of the programme gave us an opportunity to see yet another side to Appl's artistry with his joyful version of Wolf's 'Epiphanias'. More whimsical than many tellings of the story of the three wise men, it was a fitting end to the recital, the lighthearted tone lifting our spirits with well-judged humour to go with the beautiful vocal lines.

Graham Johnson, one of the most respected pianists alive today, provided sensitive accompaniment throughout and allowed Appl the space to shine as an interpreter of this repertoire.

It seems churlish to mention it but I would have liked just a couple more seconds between each of the lieder to allow the music to finish resonating before moving on to the next in the sequence. I could understand the desire to create an almost seamless flow but I wanted to chance to catch my breath between numbers. A minor irritation but one that stopped the event from being totally perfect!

Anyway, enough gushing. If you love good singing, please do seek out Benjamin Appl - he is a young man with an amazing future ahead of him.

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