Monday, 2 November 2015

A day at the Oxford Lieder Festival - part one, lunchtime and afternoon with Faure, Schubert and Mahler

Finnegan Downie Dear (piano) with Gareth Brynmore John (baritone) Exeter College Chapel Oxford Lieder Festival 2015 credit Robert Piwko
Finnegan Downie Dear (piano) with Gareth Brynmore John (baritone) at Exeter College Chapel
Oxford Lieder Festival 2015 credit Robert Piwko
Faure, Schubert and Mahler; Sophie Daneman, Robyn Allegra Parton, Sholto Kynoch, Gareth Brynmor John, Finnegan Downie Dear; Oxford Lieder Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on October 30 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Lunch with Faure and Schubert, and a pop-up Mahler song-cycle at Oxford Lieder Festival

The Oxford Lieder Festival's programme is based around not just evening concerts but events happening throughout the day, in a number of Oxford's historic venues. I went along to the festival's penultimate day, 30 October 2015, to sample what was on offer. We started with Faure and Schubert from Sophie Daneman, Robyn Allegra Parton and Sholto Kynoch at lunchtime at Holywell Music Room, then there was an early afternoon 'pop-up' performance of Mahler's Ruckert Lieder from Gareth Brynmor John and Finnegan Downie Dear in Exeter College Chapel. The rush-hour recital at Holywell Music Room with students from the Royal Academy of Music, Olivia Warburton, Michael Mofidian and Jonathan Palmer Lakeland in Brahms and the evening recital was a programme of ballads by Schubert, Schumann and Loewe from Matthew Rose and Joseph Middleton.

Sholto Kynoch, Sophie Daneman & Robyn Allegra Parton at Holywell Music Room Oxford Lieder 2015 credit Robert Piwko
Sholto Kynoch, Sophie Daneman & Robyn Allegra Parton
Oxford Lieder Festival 2015 credit Robert Piwko
In fact that wasn't the whole of the day's programme, events started in the morning with a masterclass as part of the festival's Mastercourse in which nine duos worked with Robert Holl, Roger Vignoles and guest tutors, culminating in a concert on 31 October. And Friday 30 October's final event was the late night concert was Dreams, music by Faure, George Crumb, Debussy and Berg from Annelies Can Hiftje, Elisabeth Swedlund, Jennifer Witton, Jessica Dandy and Lana Bode. And the inner man/woman was not neglected as the Vaults Restaurant provided a festival supper between the rush-hour and the evening concert.

For this first article on my day at the Oxford Lieder Festival, I took in Faure and Schubert at lunch and the afternoon Mahler song cycle. The second part of the article, covering the rush-hour and evening concerts, follows shortly (see also my interview with artistic director, Sholto Kynoch).

Lunch with Faure and Schubert at the Holywell Music Room was the last of this year's festival's lunchtime concerts presenting the complete songs by Gabriel Faure. Sopranos Sophie Daneman and Robyn Allegra Parton (who was a last-minute replacement), accompanied by Sholto Kynoch, performed Faure's Le jardin clos, his 1914 song cycle setting poems by Charles van Lerbeghe, Schubert's Fruhlingslaube, Fruhlingslied, Rastlose liebe, Die Forelle, Auf dem See and Im Abendroth and Faure's L'aurore, L'absent, Puisque j'ai mis ma levre, Puisqu'ici-bas toute ame, and Tarentelle.

Le jardin clos is late Faure, written in a style which does not offer up its secrets easily. The songs are nowhere near as easily approachable as his popular early songs. The text is paramount, with Faure giving us a supple poetic prosody in the vocal line with flowing accompaniment. The two sopranos alternated the songs, thus giving us two rather different approaches. Sophie Daneman brought a sense of suppressed excitement to many of the songs, hinting at the passions bubbling underneath. She developed a really strong connection with the audience, impressing with the beautiful suppleness of line she brought to the whole. Robyn Allegra Parton had a more sculptural quality to her vocal line, singing with vibrant intensity and controlled passion. Whilst both sopranos brought great qualities to the performances, I don't think either quite managed to get completely to the bottom of Faure's elusive art. They were sensitively accompanied by Sholto Kynoch who supplied a lovely fluidity and suppleness to the piano.

Sophie Daneman sang Schubert's Fruhlingslaube with refined tone and superb attention to the text, Rastlose Liebe was vividly impulsive whilst whe brought great delight and a strong sense of narrative to Schubert's Die Forelle. Robin Allegra Parton gave great joy to the vocal line in Schubert's Fuhlingslied,  she was fresh and appealing in Auf dem See with great lyric beauty of line, whilst in Im Abendrot she fined her voice down with a lovely spacious sense.

Gareth Brynmor John
Gareth Brynmor John
The group of Faure songs started with settings of Victor Hugo. Sophie Daneman gave us a sense of pent up emotion and lovely lyric line in L'Aurore, and in L'Absent she and Sholto Kynoch captured the strange appeal of the poem with its questioning quality. Puisque j'ai mis ma levre had an almost salon-like quality and Robin Allegra Parton's suggestive performance was complemented by a perky and sly accompaniment from Sholto Kynoch. Finally a pair of duets the lyrically flowing Puisqu'ci-as toute ame and the amazing Tarentelle in which Faure seems to have been chanelling Rossini.

After a break for a wander round Oxford catching up with displays at the Ashmolean Museum, it was time for Mahler's Ruckert Lieder in Exeter College Chapel. A free concert which was one of a series of short, pop-up events during the festival, this one attracted a capacity audience to hear baritone Gareth Brynmor John accompanied by Finnegan Downie Dear in Mahler's Ruckert Lieder in the slightly strange environment of the high Victorian Gothic of George Gilbert Scott's Exeter College Chapel. From the opening of Liebst du um Schonheit Gareth Brynmor John displayed a lovely lyric baritone with an easy top, sensitively accompanied by Finnegan Downie Dear. Throughout we got a great combination of sense of line and creamy tone from John. He worked hard on the words but was ultimately defeated by the resonant acoustic and I look forward to hearing him performing the Mahler again in a subtler acoustic. Finnegan Downie Dear provided some lovely transparent accompaniment in Ich atmet'einen Linden duft and both brought a sense of the exotic perfume needed here, something which is trickier in the lower lying baritone version. The final two songs, the darkly intense Um Mitternacht followed by Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen sung with just the right intense and sensitive innigkeit, were both completely spectacular and I look forward to hearing these artists again.

Part 2, covering the rush hour and evening concerts, will follow. See also my interview with artistic director, Sholto Kynoch.

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