Thursday, 19 October 2017

Brahms Late Idyll at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Ashley Riches (photo Debbie Scanlan)
Ashley Riches (photo Debbie Scanlan)
Brahms, Schubert, Dvorak, Marx, Zemlinsky; Ashley Riches, Sholto Kynoch, Natasha Loges, Emma Stannard, Louise Demeny, Max Welford, Brian O'Kane, William Vann; Oxford Lieder Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 17 2017 Star rating: 4.0
A day devoted to late Brahms with intriguing links and fine performances

Whilst the songs of Gustav Mahler are the thread running through this year's Oxford Lieder Festival, there is plenty of room for further exploration of fin-de-siecle Vienna, both looking forward and looking back. Events on Tuesday 17 October 2017 were mainly devoted to Johannes Brahms and his late flowering. At lunchtime, Ashley Riches (baritone) and Sholto Kynoch (piano) gave us Brahms' Four Serious Songs Op. 121 (his last songs) alongside Dvorak and Schubert, and in the afternoon Natasha Loges talked about Brahms' late style and accompanied Emma Stannard (mezzo-soprano) in Brahms' songs. Then at the rush-hour concert Louise Kemeny (soprano), Max Welford (clarinet), Brian O'Kane (cello) and William Vann (piano) performed Brahms' late Clarinet Trio Op.114 alongside Zemlinsky, Marx and Schubert's Shepherd on the Rock.

Then, at the end of the day came Benjamin Appl and Graham Johnson's Lieder von Orient recital, giving us a chance to experience a young Brahms (see my review).

At the Holywell Music Room at lunchtime, Ashley Riches and Sholto Kynoch put together a programme considering the sacred and the numinous, with Schubert's Totengräbers Heimweh D842, Nachtstück D672, Seligket D433 and Dithyrambe D801, six of Dvorak's Biblical Songs Op.99 setting texts from the 16th century Bible of Kralice, and Brahms Four Serious Songs Op.121, setting texts from Luther's translation of the Bible and written two years after the Dvorak.

The first two Dvorak songs were serious and dramatic, with Riches capturing the sense of the numinous, otherness, in the philosophical texts. Seligkeit was more joyful and concentrated, whilst Dithyrambe gave us a characterful narrative dealing with Greek Gods.

In Dvorak's Biblical Songs Ashley Riches brought out the sense of the personal in the texts, these were not abstract sentiments, he made us believe they meant something to him. The first two songs, 'Clouds and Darkness' and 'Thou art my hiding place' were both strikingly free, rhapsodic arioso so only with 'Give ear to my prayer, O God# did we get something more lyrical, with a strikingly decorative piano accompaniment.

Throughout the songs Sholto Kynoch's role was not so much to accompany, as to comment, amplify and contrast sometimes the melodic piano complementing the more direct vocal line.

'I will sing a new song' was more joyful, with a greater sense of structure, whilst the lyrical 'By the rivers of Babylon' was remarkably complex wit a striking range of writing in the piano. Finally, the joyful 'O sing unto the Lord a new song' wit Czech folk hints in the piano.

Brahms Four serious songs also set Biblical texts and again Riches gave us a sense of the personal, amplifying the way Brahms set the songs. 'Denn es gehet dem Menschen' had a feeling of constant movement in the piano and a lovely dark rich sound and serious intent from Riches. For all the melodic beauty of 'Ich wandte mich' there was something intense and powerful about the piece. 'O Tod' started dark and passionate before the lovely serenity of acceptance, for all Riches is 40 years too young for the sentiments. Finally the flowing drama of 'though I speak with the tongues of men' as if telling a story (or perhaps a sermon!).

Max Welford
Max Welford
In the afternoon in the Shulman auditorium at Queen's College, Natasha Loges was joined by mezzo-soprano Emma Stannard for an illustrated lecture Brahms Late Idyll. Stannard, accompanied by Loges at the piano, performed five Brahms songs all written in the late 1880s, Wie melodien Op.105 No.1, Auf dem Kirchhofe Op.105 No.4, Mädchenlied Op.107 No.5, Komt dir manchmal in den Sinn Op.103 and Ständchen Op.106 No.1. Loges uses these to illustrate themes which linked Brahms to the fin de siecle despite the view of him as being its antithesis.

Even in the 1880s there was talk of a Brahmsian fog over Europe, and in 1912 Walter Niemann would comment that Brahms was everywhere. Thanks to Brahms' friendships with both musicians, artists and influential music lovers such as the head of the Siemens firm and the Wittgenstein family, Brahms was seen as the embodiment of the older generation, something for the artists of the fin de siecle to rebel against. But Loges went on to show that there was much more to Brahms than this and that many of the themes which crop up in his late songs are common to the fin de siecle.

Emma Stannard sang with a beautifully modulated and warm mezzo-soprano, giving us five finely shaped gems.

Louise Kemeny
Louise Kemeny
One of Loges' themes, the way Brahms took pleasure in music, was illustrated by the way Richard Mühlfeld's clarinet playing drew Brahms out of retirement. The first work which Brahms wrote for Mühlfeld was the Clarinet Trio Op. 114, this was the centre piece of a programme presented at the Holywell Music Room by Louise Kemeny, Max Welford, Brian O'Kane and William Vann. We started with Schubert's Dier Hirt auf dem Felsen (for soprano, clarinet and piano) and then heard the 'Andante' from Zemlinsky's Clarinet Trio in D minor Op.3 no.2 (for clarinet, cello and piano) from 1896, Joseph Marx 'Adagio (Alles Tagverlangen)' from Vier Lieder (for soprano, cello and piano), and then finally the Brahms trio from 1891.

Max Welford opened the Schubert with lovely liquid tone which was complemented by Louise Kemeny's vibrant, lyrical line. In the opening section she seemed to be taking care with the lively arpeggios (no bad thing), and perhaps favoured line and tone over clarity of diction. The middle section was very affecting, before a final section full of joy with lovely duetting between clarinet and voice. Listening to the piece I was struck how much of the structure of a Rossinian double-aria the piece uses, and after all it was written for the operatic soprano Anna Milder-Hauptmann who sang the role of Leonore in all three versions of Beethoven's Fidelio.

Alexander von Zemlinsky's Clarinet Trio dates from 1896, a period when the young composer was supported by Brahms, who recommended the work for publication. The phrase Brahmsian hangs over the lovely 'Andante', opening with an achingly beautiful yet chromatic melody, to which Zemlinsky adds a complexity of texture.  A multi-section piece, including rhapsodic moments, Zemlinsky constantly returned to the opening material to create a work suffused with melancholy.

In the Joseph Marx song we heard a style far more advanced, with complex chromatic harmonies and juicy chords, yet in a heightened romantic style. The cello added to the mood of the intense vocal line, and contributed to the intense instrumental postlude.

Then finally, Brahms' Clarinet Trio. Again we heard aching melancholy in the opening of the 'Allegro' but with disturbing hints from the piano, and the real turbulent drama was luanched, though there were lovely lyrical easings up too, and a nice interplay between the players as the music ebbed and flowed, leading to the remarkably atmospheric coda. the 'Adagio' was remarkably spare, as each instrument in turn took the melody, restrained in its intensity and relaxed, but quivering with suppressed emotion. The graceful and flowing 'Andante grazioso' was followed by a vibrant and turbulent 'Allegro' with some surprisingly delicate transparent moments.

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