I have enjoyed many recitals of German art songs over the years but nothing could quite have prepared me for The Erlkings. It is hard to imagine a more engaging and joyous evening of music-making. It was all the more special because of how unexpected it was.
The performance was of Schubert's lyrical masterpiece 'Die Schone Mullerin'. Written for singer and piano, it is one of the mainstays of the lieder repertoire. The Erlkings are not a traditional group. They are a folk/rock quartet of singer Bryan Benner on guitar, Thomas Toppler on percussion and vibraphone, Ivan Turkalj on cello and Simon Teurezbacher on tuba. This, at first glance, feels a very long way from Schubert's world but on closer inspection it feels absolutely right.
As you proceed through the song cycle, you realise how clever and appropriate the new arrangements are. The unusual blend in instruments brings fresh musical and interpretive insights to this very familiar work.
But what really struck me was how it showed Schubert's place in the history of popular song.
He was, as many composers are, inspired by the folk song traditional of his community as well as the popular songs of the time. And what emerges through the new arrangements is how there is a direct through line that connects Schubert to the early days of the rock and folk music of the 1950s and beyond. You could easily imagine The Everly Brothers or even Elvis performing a Schubert song in this way!
The new English translation by Bryan Benner is very faithful to the original German poems and makes you listen afresh to the songs. It captures the shifting mood of the poetry perfectly, by turns whimsical, romantic and melancholic.
What I have rarely experienced in a song recital in the way the audience were captivated throughout. There was no following along with translations, no fidgeting - just attention and engagement with the performance.
It was a masterclass on how to reimagine a classic piece for those who have known and loved it for years whilst also being a perfect introduction to art songs for the uninitiated.
It has been eight years since their last performance in Oxford. I sincerely hope there will not be another long gap before local audiences get to enjoy this unique group again.