Sunday, 23 October 2016

A day at the Oxford Lieder Festival: Bach Revived

Phoenix Piano Trio performing Schumann at the Weston Library, Oxford Lieder Festival - photo Tom Herring
Phoenix Piano Trio performing Schumann at the Weston Library, Oxford Lieder Festival - photo Tom Herring
This year's Oxford Lieder Festival is focusing on Robert Schumann, performing his complete songs and much else besides. Threaded through the day's events on 21 October 2016, was the theme of Bach Revived looking at the Bach revival led by Mendelssohn and which had a big influence on Schumann. As part of my day at the festival (see my reviews of the daytime concerts and Juliane Banse's evening recital) I heard lectures from Robert Quinney on Mendelssohn and Schumann's use of Bachian counterpoint, Hannah French on the revival of the St Matthew Passion, and Richard Wigmore on the influence of Bach in Schumann's songs, plus a short recital from soprano Turiya Haudenhuyse, and the Phoenix Piano Trio (violinist Jonathan Stone, cellist Christian Elliot, pianist Sholto Kynoch).

Robert Quinney lecturing at New College Chapel, Oxford Lieder Festival - photo Tom Herring
Robert Quinney lecturing at New College Chapel, Oxford Lieder Festival
photo Tom Herring
Robert Quinney started things off with a fascinating lecture on how Mendelssohn and Schumann studied and were influenced by Bach's counterpoint. Quinney pointed out that, contrary to the popular narrative of Bach's music being ignored between his death and the early 19th century revival, Bach never really went away and that Mozart heard one of Bach's motets in Leipzig and Samuel Wesley was a great proponent. But Bach's music was not much appreciated, yet something changed in the early 19th century.

Mendelssohn had counterpoint lessons when young and he both played Bach's music on the organ and composed using techniques learned from Bach's music, writing two sets of preludes and fugues (Op.35 and Op.37) which use Bach as a model. And in the 1840s as music director of the cathedral in Berlin, Mendelssohn wrote a significant amount of music for the choir again inspired by Bach's models (two of which were to be included in Evensong at New College the following day).

Schumann's engagement with Bach was more private, he studied the Well-Tempered Clavier in 1830, and then in 1845 made an intense study of Bach's counterpoint and the fruits of this were the canonic studies for pedal piano, and the six fugues for organ on the name Bach. Quinney pointed out that in Schumann's songs there is a very strong authorial presence; in Dichterliebe every song is ended by the piano. And Quinney felt that it was this sense of authorial presence which Schumann appreciated in Bach's music. Bach's mature fugues involve a complicated web of interrelationships, Quinney likened them to a novel (a form that was just developing at the time), so that by the end we hear the subject differently because of the events along the way. And it is this subjectivity which we find in Schumann's fugues.

Quinney proved an engaging and informative lecturer, and illustrated his points with excerpts at the piano including one of the fugues for pedal piano, and concluded the lecture with a performance of the Allemande from Bach's Fourth Partita.

Turiya Haudenhuyse and Sholto Kynoch at the Weston Library, Oxford Lieder - photo Tom Herring
Turiya Haudenhuyse, Sholto Kynoch at the Weston Library, Oxford Lieder Festival
photo Tom Herring
In the afternoon, in the lecture room of the Weston Library, Hannah French gave an illustrated lecture on the involvement of Mendelssohn, Sterndale Bennett and Schumann in the revivals of the Bach St Matthew Passion. This of course started with Mendelssohn's famous performance of the passion in 1829. Mendelssohn and his sister were members of the Berlin Singakademie, a group which used to explore old music. And the director of the group, Carl Friedrich Zelter, had a copy of the score of the St Matthew Passion but Zelter failed to put on a performance of the passion, feeling it was not possible.

The teenage Mendelssohn clearly had great enthusiasm for the passion, he was given a copy of the score as a present. Encouraged by the actor Eduard Devrient (who wanted to play the role of Christus), and allowed to use the Berlin Singakademie by Zelter, Mendelssohn performed the passion in 1829. Some 60 minutes of the music were cut to make the performance do-able, and the recitatives were performed by two cellos (double stopping) and a double bass, the oboes d'amore and da caccia were replaced by clarinets. There was a year of rehearsals, and the orchestra included a mixture of amateurs and professionals. The parts and the score are in the Bodleian and it is clear that it was a very dramatic performance, there are lots of dynamic markings in the score, lots of pianissimos.

Sterndale Bennett, whom Mendelssohn invited to Leipzig, was clearly influenced by this Bach enthusiasm and in the 1840s he put on performances of the music of Bach in London and in 1849 he set up the Bach Society in 1849 with the aim of collecting the works of Bach. The society performed the St Matthew Passion in 1854, the first performance in English, and movements from the Mass in B minor in 1860. French showed parts of Bennett's score for the passion, again highly marked up with dynamics and cut as per Mendelssohn's performances. Though the society gave further performances of the passion, Bach's music was still perceived by many as being too difficult to listen to, but Sterndale Bennett persisted.

Jonathan Stone and Sholto Kynoch at the Weston Library, Oxford Lieder - Photo Tom Herring
Jonathan Stone, Sholto Kynoch at the Weston Library, Oxford Lieder Festival
photo Tom Herring
Schumann may have heard Mendelssohn's 1829 performance of the passion, he certainly heard a lot about it and was present at the 1841 performance in Leipzig. In 1851 Schumann formed his own concert society and put on a performance of the St John Passion in Dusseldorf. Schumann got the orchestra parts from the cantor at Bach's old church, St Thomas's Church in Leipzig. He used a string quartet for the recitatives, and had a choir of around 180 to 200 singers.

These performances did not lead to a big revival, it was a slow and steady progress. But Schumann's enthusiasm for a publicly available collection of Bach's music would help establish the Bach Gesellschaft in 1850 and between 1851 and 1900 this published 46 volumes of Bach's music. Publication led to further performances and by the time of founding of the German empire in the 1870s Bach is acknowledged to be a great historical figure. But it would not be until 1907 that a complete performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion would be heard without any of the cuts introduced by Mendelssohn, conducted by Felix Mottl in Karlsruhe.

French was a lively and engaging lecturer, and as well as visual illustrations we heard excerpts from recordings of the music, providing a window into a very different sound-world.

Before the final lecture, there was a pop-up recital in the foyer of the library, so that the music was accompanied by the clink of cups and the hiss of the coffee machine. The soprano Turiya Haudenhusye (who had taken part in the 2015 mastercourse at the festival) sang a group of songs from Bach's Anna Magdalene Notebook and songs from Schumann's Eichendorff Liederkreis. But first we heard the first of Schumann's Sech studien in kanonischer Form written originally for player piano, and played by the Phoenix Piano Trio in an arrangement by Schumann's friend Theodor Kirchner. This really was Bach and Schumann entwined, and made me want to hear the works on a real pedal piano (there are recordings).

The three songs by Bach, Bist du bei mir, Willst du dein Herz mir schenken and So oft ich meine Tobackspfeife were accompanied by Sholto Kynoch (piano) and Christian Elliot (cello). Turiya Haudenhusye has a rich toned voice, and brought out the charm and character of the songs in a performance which was no quite romantic but was not historically informed either, thus bringing us a little closer to how Schumann would have heard this music. Haudenhusye and Kynoch also performed three Schumann songs, Die Stille, Wehmut and Zwielicht from the Op.39 Liederkreis, whetting our appetite for Richard Wigmore's talk about the songs.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the recital was the performance by violinist Jonathan Stone accompanied by Sholto Kynoch, of the Andante from Bach's Violin Sonata No. 3 with a piano accompaniment by Schumann, and the Prelude from Violin Partita No. 3 with a piano accompaniment by Mendelssohn. Schumann's accompaniment to the sonata was mainly discreet chords, giving the work a more romantic flavour. Mendelssohn accompanied the partita with music in a more contrapuntal style.

Richard Wigmore in his lecture talked about Schumann's songs and how the influence of Bach can be traced. The results were quite surprising, as we heard familiar songs but in a new way. And Wigmore took us through a number of songs from the 1840s and 1850s, from the Heine Liederkreis to the Mary Stuart songs, where Bach's influence can be found, illustrating them with visuals and with recordings.

There was one final element to the Bach strand which I had to miss. The final concert of the day, at 10pm in New College Chapel, combined performances of Bach cantatas by Oxford Bach Soloists, with James Gilchrist (tenor), conducted by Tom Hammond-Davies, with two of Schumann's fugues played by Robert Quinney.

A Day at the Oxford Lieder Festival: Lunch with Schubert, tea with Mendelssohn & Gade
A Day at the Oxford Lieder Festival: Juliane Banse and Marcelo Amaral in Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann
Elsewhere on this blog:

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