Oxford Lieder Festival review

Royal Academy Song Circle, Oxford Lieder Festival


Mendelssohn’s cheer-leaders have spent his anniversary year desperately trying to convince the rest of us that his oratorios, symphonies, and concertos are unfairly-spurned masterpieces, but it hasn’t worked because – with a few shining exceptions – they are not.

This composer’s true excellence is to be found elsewhere, as Angelika Kirchschlager and Barbara Bonney have shown with their Cd ‘First Encounter’: in his Lieder. And the concert which Richard Stokes and Eugene Asti have put together for the Oxford Lieder Festival has now rammed that point home, at least for the audience who gathered to hear the cream of the Royal Academy’s young singers make the case.

Last year Asti – a noted pianist and accompanist – published a volume of 46 Mendelssohn songs which had never been in print before. As he acerbically points out, a comparable trouvaille by Mozart would have had the musical world scrambling to perform it, but as they are merely by Mendelssohn their appearance was greeted by a deafening silence. Stokes’s prefatory speech in Oxford’s Holywell Music Room pulled no punches: the songs we would hear were not only on a par with those of Schubert, but were in some instances – comparisons being possible because both composers set the same texts – significantly superior. The recital would be presented in a chronological arc, without an interval, and with no punctuations for applause.

It didn’t take me long to be convinced, once we’d got past the precocious songs the composer penned when he was ten. ‘Der Verlassene’, written when he was twelve, was an impressively subtle exercise in chromaticism, and from that point on I was bewitched by the charm and sheer originality of the worlds his songs conjured up. Some, like the pregnant teenager’s ‘I feel strange, mother’, were impishly suggestive, others – like ‘Christmas Carol’ and ‘Greeting’ – had an endearing simplicity; ‘Beware’ – a sexual cautionary tale which Brahms also set – had hurtling energy, as baritone Marcus Farnsworth sang it. As time went on, the mood grew darker, with song after song plunging us into a world where love and bereavement are daily concomitants, with resigned acceptance being the only dignified response. Soprano Aoife Miskelly, tenor Peter Davoren, and counter-tenor Roderick Morris were all superb: this fascinating concert should now be reprised in larger auditoria elsewhere.

22nd October 2009

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