Preview: Oxford Lieder Festival

It seems at times as though the Oxford Lieder Festival’s project of ‘bringing Schubert’s Vienna to Oxford’ really has taken over the city.  A gruelling schedule is required to tackle the immense task of performing the entire body of lieder Schubert ever composed, over 600 songs, in just three weeks.  Highlights from the first week of the festival included an opening concert in the Sheldonian Theatre showcasing lieder and partsongs from across Schubert’s career and a performance of Winterreise by the mighty pairing of tenor Ian Bostridge and composer-pianist Thomas Adès, fresh from gaining critical acclaim for their spellbinding reading of the song cycle at the Aldeburgh Festival in June.

Picking out recommendations from the plethora of remaining events is not an easy task, but two late-night concerts instantly stand out.  The first is Imogen Cooper playing the Piano Sonata in B-flat Major (D960) in the intimate surroundings of the Holywell Music Room (Thursday 23rd October, 10pm). This sonata, Schubert’s last, is some of the most hauntingly melancholy music the composer ever wrote, opening a door to a unique and moving soundworld from its very first bars.  Imogen Cooper brings a wealth of experience in this repertoire, as well as the sense of control and lyricism it requires.

Secondly, Wolfgang Holzmair’s recital of Songs of the Night and the Stars is another exciting prospect. Accompanied by Sholto Kynoch, founder and director of the festival, the Austrian baritone will be exploring this important theme in Schubert’s song output.  It is a real sign of the growing stature of the festival that it is able to attract international artists of such standing.  Performed in New College’s beautiful ante-chapel, this recital has all the ingredients for creating a truly special atmosphere. Holzmair is following this up with a programme of Songs of Evening and Twilight, accompanied by Graham Johnson, in the Holywell Music Room (Thursday 30th October, 7:30pm).

The festival is not just attracting world-class performers of Schubert’s lieder to Oxford, though, but also an impressive range of scholars concerned with his music.  Susan Youens, a renowned authority on lieder and Schubert in particular, is leading a study day on Die schöne Müllerin (Sunday 19th October, 11am-3:45pm in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, St Hilda’s College), a perfect way to prepare for Christoph Prégardien and Roger Vignoles’s performance of the cycle in the evening (Sunday 19th October, 7:30pm, St John the Evangelist). Moreover, throughout  the festival, the pianist and scholar Graham Johnson is holding a series of lecture-recitals covering Schubert’s ‘Life and Times’.

Amongst all this celebration, we should not forget that in Schubert’s Vienna only fragments of his music were ever heard in public, short songs and choral pieces inserted into concerts that mixed composers and genres with abandon.  Whilst Schubert’s songs and piano pieces may have been popular in the private salons, many of the great late instrumental works were probably only ever heard by the composer inside his own head.  However, in March 1828, just months before his death, Schubert achieved one of the highlights of his tragically short professional career: a public concert in Vienna with only his music on the programme.  The expanding of this event, unique in Schubert’s lifetime, to a full three-week extravaganza may not quite represent a literal adhesion to the notion of ‘bringing Schubert’s Vienna to Oxford’, but the richness and variety of the festival sends a powerful message about why this man’s music continues to matter so much.

G. Masters

For more information about the Oxford Lieder Festival, please visit their website.

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