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Oxford Lieder Festival 2020

The celebration of song returns in digital form to explore Connections Across Time: A Brief History of Song

October 16, 2020
Art can triumph through these times

Benjamin Appl and Sholto Kynoch, 14th October

The fact that one of the highlights of the Oxford cultural year has found a way to survive through the current restrictions is something to celebrate. And it was with a great sense of joy that I entered Oxford Lieder Festival's Virtual Concert Hall to spend time with one of my favourite singers - the young German baritone Benjamin Appl.

Festival founder Sholto Kynoch and Appl have put together an eclectic and intimate programme titled The Sound of Silence. It is in part a meditation on the role of silence in our lives and in part an exploration of how silence is a vital part of the musical experience. In short, it is a masterpiece of programme construction.

Opening with the plain song, 'Domine exaudi', we were immediately transported into that contemplative space where your thoughts can find freedom to be explored. One of Appl's greatest skills as a lieder singer is his ability to scale his voice to suit the mood he wishes to create and this piece, the most straightforward of musical forms, was a deceptively simple and yet complex opening. One of the best starts to any recital I have attended.

What followed was no less engaging. Appl is always at home with the greats of German song - his Schubert and Schumann interpretations are exemplary. His facility with language and his growing skill as an actor combined with his natural musicality work so well in this repertoire.

But it was when he explored other composers that I was most entranced. 'Tu se' morta' from Monteverdi's Orfeo was heartbreaking and makes me long to hear more from him in this repertoire.

The discovery of the evening for me was the collection of songs by Charles Ives - 'Memories', 'Very Pleasant' and 'Rather Sad' were a delight. I shall certainly explore more of his songs.

Appl's range as a performer continues to grow and, in a way, the fact that this year's festival is only online helps us to enjoy his artistry in a more direct and intimate way. The closeness of the camera makes it feel as if he is performing just for you. His engagement with the music, the text and the virtual audience just comes together perfectly. I shall be revisiting this recital for the rest of the month.

Special praise must also go to Kynoch - he is an incredibly supportive and responsive accompanist. He never outshines the singer - yet still manages to be a very active participant in the music-making.

More praise must also go to the Festival for showcasing younger singers at the start of each concert. Nardus Williams gave radiant performances of two Schubert settings - she is a huge talent and a voice to watch for the future.

Overall, this was a triumphant evening of music. It shows how art can triumph through these times. Technology, in many ways, has made this even better than it would have been in person.

Brava to all concerned!


October 12, 2020
Magical music in heavenly ambience

Opening recital: Dame Sarah Connolly and Eugene Asti, 10th October

With my favourite mug of tea in hand, I quickly became transfixed by the welcome screen of fluffy white clouds gliding through an azure sky; a fitting image to begin the live stream of the opening night of this eight-day classical music festival. Upon sighting the familiar burgundy benches of the Holywell Music Room, I was transported.

The evening's recital of Schumann and Mahler was swiftly underway after a brief and warm introduction while Emerging Artist, bass William Thomas took to the stage. The rising star delighted viewers with a handful of songs by Schubert (accompanied by Eugene Asti’s characteristically attentive playing), including a melancholy rendition of the haunting classic ‘Du Bist Die Ruh’. His silky-smooth tone complemented his romantic features and subtle storytelling, creating an angelic ambience in the twinkling light. (I noticed I was seeing complexities in the performance I otherwise might have missed had I been sat in the benches.) Three of Schubert’s Shakespeare settings of ‘Trinklied’ from Antony and Cleopatra, ‘Ständchen’ from Cymbeline and ‘An Silvia’ from The Two Gentlemen of Verona all composed in July 1826 to various iterations of German translations, trilled of tempting love, their innocence and rapture effortlessly delivered by Thomas.

Despite a majority of the night’s music being sung in German, I needn’t have had the translations at my side; its message being universal and its stories resonant and heart-felt. Next, to demonstrate this reflective-connectedness of the chosen music at its best, mezzo-soprano, Dame Sarah Connolly launched into the song cycle ‘Frauenliebe und -leben’ by Schumann with her unfaltering charisma. On sparkling form, her presence shone through the hopelessness of the tale of one woman’s desire, satisfaction and loss, the harmonic progressions (signposted by Schumann) figuratively laying the path to ecstatic acceptance of birth and death.

After a short interval, Thomas once again reminisced in Shakespearean legend, singing a collection of English songs by Gerard Finzi, Roger Quilter, Haydn and Geoffrey Bush, as modern takes on the romances of Twelfth Night and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

The last instalment from Connolly, heralded a delicate Stimmungslied, a collection of songs by Mahler called ‘Fünf Lieder nach Rückert’. The intense vocal line, floating over the shimmering accompaniment filled the hall with uncharted longings as Mahler’s hidden love song to his wife Alma ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ was sung into the eaves: “You must love me neither for my beauty, my youth, my fortune, but because I love you”. Connolly’s captivating clarity in both her tone and in her interpretations spellbound the meditative tune, while Asti’s understated playing trod softly on the Lieder. Though the resounding mood in A Minor felt heavy and a little soporific, the dissonance felt apt, demonstrating Mahler’s loneliness, and the sparseness of the empty seats in the auditorium.

It may take some time for me to get used to not hearing, feeling or seeing an audience surrounding me during a performance, and likewise for the performers, though I can’t help but feel the silence solidified a sincerity in the recital, encouraging an internalising of the music in a way I might not have before. It was a plus too, that the music could be shared worldwide; the number of viewers (shown on the screen) crept up to 300, 100 more than the Holywell’s seating capacity. There has been and will continue to be a great thirst for live music in these isolated times, and perhaps for The Holywell Music Room and for Oxford Lieder Festival, their reach could grow further than they could have ever expected.

The organiser says:

Music and poetry unite and collide across centuries, from the Medieval to the Enlightenment to the present day. This year, the Oxford Lieder Festival will present a thrilling and innovative programme comprising more than 40 pre-recorded and live events from special and unusual venues across Oxford over a packed eight days. At the heart of the festival will be a series of high quality live-streamed concerts from world-class artists including Benjamin Appl, Ian Bostridge, Dame Sarah Connolly, and Roderick Williams for audiences to enjoy from the comfort of their own homes. Tickets will also give access to two further weeks of viewing as well as a host of fascinating and informative pre-concert resources.

The 19th year of the Oxford Lieder Festival promises to build on previous successes with Connections Across Time: A Brief History of Song; eight days of world-class music and poetry that will coax out links between Bach and Schubert, Dowland and Britten, and ranges from 14th-century songs by Guillaume de Machaut to freshly-minted works. Many of the perennial favourites of the song repertoire will naturally feature, with concerts devoted to Schubert, Schumann, Fauré and others. The diverse settings of poets will also be explored, looking at the reception of the great Persian poet Hafiz across centuries, and at Thomas Hardy's approach to the passing of time.

Over the course of the Festival, many of the world’s leading artists will perform songs by the masters of the German Lied, as well as composers including Claudio Monteverdi, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Benjamin Britten. The concerts will be supported by additional events from a wealth and diversity of specialists who can draw connections between music, poetry, art, history, science, and geography. As well as masterclasses and live study events with musical illustrations, every concert will have a host of resources provided, from pre-recorded talks and interviews to curated playlists and listening notes, available to ticket holders from two weeks before the Festival.

Through the digital streaming of Connections Across Time, the Oxford Lieder Festival will continue to focus on presenting the highest quality of performances at affordable ticket prices. This year, a flexible range of prices will enable the Festival to offer individual concert tickets priced between £3 and £12. Festival Passes are priced at £90. Passes give access to all 40 of the Festival's events, completely live and for two weeks after the Festival, as well as all associated resources; notes, translations, interviews, talks, and more.

The digital streaming of the Oxford Lieder Festival also allows for people to enjoy new experiences. A host of special study events include Francesca Leoni, Assistant Keeper and Curator of Islamic Art at the Ashmolean Museum, showcasing several objects from the Museum’s collection, adding another layer to the cultural backdrop of medieval Persia.There is also a virtual visit to the Bodleian Libraries which house one of two major collections of Felix Mendelssohn’s manuscripts, the other being in Berlin. Martin Holmes, Alfred Brendel Curator of Music at the Bodleian, introduces some of these important scores, letters, and paintings, and tells the story of how they ended up in Oxford.

A wider than ever range of venues are being used for this year’s events, meaning that the Festival truly inhabits the city. Oxford and its many wonderful venues are an integral part of the Festival and will remain so. In addition to the usual range of venues at the Festival, this year’s events will take audiences into some stunning spaces that would not usually be accessible. A combination of the intimate art form of Lieder, these magical places, and carefully crafted filming will create a different but special atmosphere and keep the Festival rooted in the fabric of the city.Venues include Merton College Chapel, Trinity College, Broughton Castle, the Holywell Music Room (Europe’s oldest concert hall), the Botanic Garden, the Bodleian Library and the Natural History and Ashmolean Museums.

Some of the artists coming to Oxford to perform this year include Dame Sarah Connolly and Eugene Asti who will give the opening recital on Saturday 10 October. Other world-leading singers appearing at the Festival include Ian Bostridge (11 and 14 Oct), Roderick Williams (16 Oct), Carolyn Sampson (13 Oct), Lucy Crowe (12 Oct), Christoph Prégardien (17 Oct), Benjamin Appl (14 Oct), James Gilchrist (13 Oct) and Kitty Whateley (15 Oct).

Emerging stars performing include the outstanding bass William Thomas,who is already being hailed as one of the bright stars of the song world, and who won the 2018 Kathleen Ferrier Award. Every evening recital this year will begin with Schubert songs performed by singers who have arguably been hardest hit by the current crisis: artists who are already forging careers but not yet at a stage where they can view current circumstances as only a temporary setback.

A lunchtime series at the Holywell Music Room includes concerts of Austrian, English and American songs. Chamber music will be performed by The Hermes Experiment and The Orlando Consort.

Sholto Kynoch, Artistic Director of Oxford Lieder Festival, said: “There was never any doubt in my mind that we needed to proceed with a Festival this year, and I was eager to explore and exploit the opportunities to be found in an online fomat. With this bold undertaking, we can continue to champion song and engage our audience, and we can ensure vital work for our wonderful artists at an otherwise uncertain time. I’m excited by the creative possibilities that are opened up, and especially by the possibility of reaching a new audience both nationally and internationally.

I am delighted that such an amazing array of artists are involved in this unique eight days of exuberant, spine-tingling music and poetry. Our theme this year offers a rich array of possibilities and our fantastically wide-ranging additional resources are designed to give audiences a genuine insight into the music and poetry we will be showcasing from across many centuries and countries.

This year’s opening night concert in the intimate surroundings of Oxford’s Holywell Music Room launches a star-studded season, during which performances take place all over the city. Online music making can never replace in-person attendance at concerts and the unique buzz that it brings, but we are planning with confidence and are focussed on the strengths of being online. And of course, we are already looking ahead to next year and our 20th anniversary, by which time I’m sure we will all be back together, and the celebration will be all the greater.”

Book tickets online at www.oxfordlieder.co.uk or phone the Box Office on 01865 591276.

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