Review: A Day at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Robert Schumann may be the laudable focus of this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival but the concerts of Monday 24 October looked further afield and out into the wider world of song. In a lunchtime recital, Roderick Williams took a packed-to-overflowing Holywell Music Room back to a slightly earlier point in the nineteenth century, with Franz Schubert’s Schwanengesang. A song-cycle in all but fact, this collection of Lieder, which was posthumously shoehorned together by a later publisher, places two sequences exploring the range of the period’s poetry alongside each other. Ludwig Rellstab’s verses on the vicissitudes of the heart drew from Schubert the sort of salon-style music that is too easily damned as ‘Biedermeier’ (associated with the amateur or petit-bourgeois), while his settings of Heinrich Heine’s deeper musings hint at a greater unease, and J.G. Seidl’s ‘Die Taubenpost’ breaks the serious atmosphere as a throwaway encore piece.

Williams’ lyric baritone met all the challenges set by both words and music. He was strong and consistent across the range, as one might expect from such an experienced and acclaimed singer. But hearing him in the Holywell’s intimate setting revealed a greater depth to his range than might be discerned in London’s more cavernous venues. The lower register had a surprising richness and revealed Williams’ magnificent breath control. There was a lightness in the simpler songs but a reserve of rocket-power was powerfully deployed when the Heine settings raged, bearing the unbearable in ‘Der Atlas’, for example. Williams appeared to “live” the songs, making this presentation a vividly dramatic experience. Susie Allan supported with subtlety and sensitivity, imitating plucked strings in ‘Ständchen’ and all but shivering in ‘Die Stadt’. The cycle’s highlight, ‘Der Doppelgänger’, was memorably harrowing in its frozen numbness.

A mid-afternoon treat was laid on in the Weston Library’s foyer. The University of Oxford’s Schola Cantorum gave four part-songs by Schumann and two by his wife, Clara, which were composed as touching birthday gifts for him. Blackwell Hall is a room seemingly without an acoustic; there is nothing for the singers to work with as there would be in the more venerable stone buildings of which Oxford has no shortage. The choir, competing against the café and box office, also seemed short on lower voices. Nevertheless, once they relaxed into their peculiar surroundings, the blend was as good as it could possibly be in such an anti-musical environment. Schumann’s choral music is perhaps the most under-appreciated segment of his still-misunderstood output, but these young singers proved that there is much to cherish here and built to a brilliant performance of Goethe’s pantheistic ‘Talismane’ that left audience, snackers, and passers-by in stunned awe.

Esteemed Mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter. Credit: Ewa-Marie Rundquist

The evening attraction was a recital performance at the Sheldonian Theatre of songs written by, or associated with, William Shakespeare. Mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter alternated songs with appropriate readings by actor Simon Robson (you might remember him from such shows as Eastenders and Doctors), and pianist Julius Drake was a fully equal member of the trio. Some usual suspects were present – Purcell’s ‘If music be the food of love’, Schubert’s ‘An Silvia’ – along with several more thought-provoking selections. Berlioz’s ‘La mort d’Ophélie’ was a particularly beautiful reminder of the Frenchman’s obsession with the Bard, while two offcuts from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream were wonderfully evocative of his uniquely personal response to that most enchanted of plays. Von Otter was firmly on home ground with two Sibelius settings in Swedish, but perhaps the biggest treat was Tippett’s three Songs for Ariel, the central ‘Full fathom five’ especially stirring.

Von Otter retained her Scandinavian coolness, but warmed the voice gently in more romantic songs by Vaughan Williams and Korngold, even introducing a seductive, smoky sound on occasion. Two sonnets set by Rufus Wainwright closed the show proper, and you’ll know whether his ersatz bluesiness is your cup of tea or not. The encore was Cole Porter’s ‘Brush up your Shakespeare’, for which the gruff-voiced Robson joined von Otter in duet. This is the sort of thing that looks so good on paper but requires absolute military precision in its execution if it is to appear spontaneous. This was clearly under- (or un-) rehearsed and, although the audience lapped it up, the jokes (some updated to reference Brexit and a certain Trump) fell flat, one after another, like tumbling dominos. The encore proved a disappointing end to a day that was otherwise so carefully programmed and exquisitely performed. Drake didn’t know whether to lead or follow, and while Von Otter’s English may be stupendously idiomatic, her American just ain’t.


David Threasher

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