Sunday, 17 October 2010

Oxford Lieder Festival report

Oxford Lieder is much more than a series of recitals, it's the tip of an all-year programme. First, two logistically challenging enterprises. A mass schools exercise, where kids from many different schools in the area joined together in a choir. You can imagine the organizing that goes into this, it didn't happen overnight. They sang in the new atrium at the Ashmolean Museum. This is architecturally spectacular, glass and light - enjoy the photos on the link, they're gorgeous.

Friday afternoon rush hour open air concert on Broad Street - not usual busker fare but Brahms and Schumann part songs. Since this part of Broad Street is now pedestrian, it attracted a big crowd, over 100. Getting Schumann and Brahms to the people!

In the evening gala concert, Wolfgang Holzmair and Julius Drake in the Holywell Music Room. All Schumann, some more uncommon fare, like Abends am Strand and Belsatzar. The first tied together themes throughout the programme - old sailors remembering past adventures on the Ganges and in Lapland. Lotusblooms, throughout this recital, and partnerships, too, such as Die beiden Grenadier and the Kerner-Lieder drinking songs. Crammed into the Holywell Music Room were regulars who come every year plus several Famous Names perfectly happy to sit with us on the benches. Holzmair's programmes are always very well constructed, as his knowledge of repertoire is extensive. (Read about his blending of Schubert and Krenek's Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen by clicking on the blue link.

Belsatzar is a mini music drama: Holzmair acts with his voice, not overdone, but communicative. Schumann's ventures into opera aren't appreciated because he's experimenting with a new kind of music theatre, and we're more conditioned to conventional form. But one way into his operas is through extended ballads like this. Read about Schumann's Genoveva here.

Three different concerts and two talks on Day 2. Katarina Karnéus sang Grieg's Haugtassa, and Scandinavian songs. Haugtassa ranks for me among the best song cycles ever, it's so beautiful and so magical. I missed Richard Wigmore's pre-concert talk, which was a pity, because it would have been good. Butb there's always Daniel Grimley's book, Grieg:  music, landscape and Norwegian Identity which has a big segment on Haugtassa.

Karnéus is a specialist in Scandinavian song, and has made numerous recordings, including Haugtassa. Check out the BIS site for more - they have the complete Sibelius songs, for example. Anne Sofie von Otter's recording is the classic, but Karnéus's voice is attractively rounded and charming.. It says much about Oxford Lieder that they can attract artists of Karnéus's calibre. She'd fill a much bigger house than the Hoywell, but it was a privilege to hear her in this intimate setting. The songs are about a simple country girl, who encounters love and other mysteries. It definitely benefits from the Holywell atmosphere(apart from drunken students howling outside at the end).

The late-night concert was in the medieval New College Ante-Chapel. Schubert Songs for guitar played by Christoph Denoth, a specialist in baroque guitar, Schubert was a keen guitarist and made some transcriptions himself. There's an excellent recording of Die schöne Müllerin by Peter Schreier with Konrad Ragossing, which gives a whole new perspective on the cycle.

And earlier Angela Bic, winner of the 2009 Kathleen Ferrier Song Prize. She's actually appeared at OLF before, in 2008, proving OLF's reputation for spotting talent at an early stage. Next week, I'm going to hear Tilman Lichdi, completely new to me but he's appeared in the US.

Oxford Lieder runs on a shoestring budget, but the emphasis is on helping others. So, though funds are tight, there's a Scholarship. It's generous, big enough to seriously make a difference when you're at the start of your career. This year's award went to Stuart Jackson, still at RAM but a very distinctive voice with good range. I heard him in a Friends recital two weeks ago - definitely someone to listen out for.

Sholto Kynoch gave an excellent talk on Lieder resources on the web. I learned so much, including  a tip I ought to know but didn't "Control F" helps find things quick on a big database. Emily Ezust's Lieder and Song Texts (Lieder,net) collection features nearly 100,000 songs, cross references to poets, composers, first lines etc. It's such an important asset that when the site went down for a day last year, it was a news item in Lieder circles. Also, Bachtrack, excellent for checking what's on. Bookmark these or use the links on the right of this page. They're there because I use them all the time. Sholto also showed us how to navigate IMSLP. This is a collection of public domain scores uploaded by international library services. Full of rarities, useful references. Always so much to learn!

Much more to come on Oxford Lieder - here's the website, complete brochure embedded.
photo credit : Benjamin Harte

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