Saturday 16 July 2016

The complete Schumann & more - I chat to Sholto Kynoch about the 2016 Oxford Lieder Festival

Finnegan Downie Dear (piano) with Gareth Brynmore John (baritone) at 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
Sholto Kynoch is the founder and artistic director of the Oxford Lieder Festival and I recently caught up with him to chat about this year's festival which concentrates on the songs of Schumann, as well as talking about plans for next year. The festival is perhaps best known for its 2014 festival when, over the course of three weeks, all of Schubert's songs were performed.

Sholto Kynoch -  Credit Raphaelle Photography
Sholto Kynoch -  Credit Raphaelle Photography
I interviewed Sholto last year before the 2015 festival (see my article) and was interested to find out how he thought it had gone. For 2015, the festival took the decision not to try to compete with the Schubert festival, returning to two weeks and having the theme of composers and poetry, rather than a single composer. Sholto feels that this was very much the right decision, the 2015 festival had great attendance with audiences enjoying the mix of recitals and words. One of the highlights was an innovation for 2015, free pop-up daytime recitals at venues such as Exeter College Chapel, the Bodleian Library and the Ashmolean Museum. Each recital concentrated on a masterpiece lasting 15 to 40 minutes, and afterwards people came up to Sholto in the street (one even spoke to him outside his house) saying that they had never been to a song recital before and that attending the pop-up event had changed their perspective. Some had gone on to attend more festival events. One man, having never been to a recital, ended up going to six pop-up recitals including one of Shostakovich's Michelangelo Sonnets, hardly an easy listening piece. For Sholto, this shows that this approach works and that people have the appetite for challenging events if presented in the right way. The festival will be having some similar free events this year.

The main focus of the 2016 festival is the complete songs of Schumann, a project which Sholto admits that this is far more manageable than Schubert's output. Not only are there half the number of songs, but Schumann did not write the large scale ballads that Schubert did. In 2014 they had to find a way to programme the dozen or so songs by Schubert which last 15 minutes or more; this year there is no such challenge, the longest Schumann song is five or six minutes in length.

This also means that there is space to include other composers such as Schumann's contemporaries Mendelssohn and Brahms, Schubert whom Schumann revered and other more unusual composers. Sholto admits that though it was fantastic having a three-week festival for the Schubert songs in 2014, the festival is unlikely to do this again, finding the two week duration far more manageable.

When I ask about highlights for this years festival, Sholto immediately mentions Christian Gerhaher who is singing on the opening night, but the first few days of the festival also include Sarah Connolly and Sophie Karthäuser, Christopher Maltman, Joan Rodgers and Dietrich Henschel. But Sholto is clearly pleased with the whole line-up this year and suggests that all sixteen nights of the festival are highlights.

It is not just the evening recitals, this year he explains that they have tried to 'up the stakes' in the lunchtime recitals, so there are recitals from the 2015 Kathleen Ferrier Award winners (sopranos Soraya Mafi and Gemma Lois Summerfield, and pianist Ian Tindale), Benjamin Appl, Roderick Williams, Felicity Lott and Mhairi Lawson.
Sholto wanted the lunchtime series to be integral to the festival. The problem is that the festival is known for giving opportunities to young artists, so this year they have been a bit more creative. In what Sholto calls 'fifteen minutes of fame', soprano Nica Goric will be giving a fifteen minute recital at the beginning of Mark Padmore's evening recital which he feels is a nice way of giving young artists the opportunity. There will also be other smaller roles for young singers, as well as the festival's young artists platform recital. The result, Sholto feels, is to make the festival as starry as possible and give scope for young and up-and-coming artists.

Sholto Kynoch and Joan Rodgers at the Oxford Lieder Festival 2015 - photo Robert Piwko
Sholto Kynoch (piano) and Joan Rodgers (soprano) at the Oxford Lieder Festival 2015 - photo Robert Piwko
Sholto doesn't just act as artistic director, he is a performer too and will be performing at the festival. One of the highlights for him is a recital of the twelve poems from Ruckert's Liebesfrühling where he will be accompanying Katherine Watson and William Dazeley. It is a cycle written jointly by Robert and Clara, Sholto calls it an amazing collection of songs and adds that it is a treat to be able to play it. Another unusual work in which he is playing is Schumann's The Pilgrimage of the Rose. Though best known in Schumann's orchestra version, this cantata was originally written with piano accompaniment and premiered like this. Sholto has never had the chance to play at and is looking forward to it, with a cast including Christina Gansch, Bethan Langford, Ben Johnson, Mark Stone and Robert Holl.

In fact, in addition to Liebesfrühling, the festival will be performing all of Clara Schumann's songs too, though there are not quite 30 of these. And one day it is Clara's music that runs as a thread through the whole day, with Liebesfrühling at lunchtime, her Piano Trio at the Rush Hour Concert, and in the evening Bryony Williams and John Mark Ainsley performing with David Owen Norris playing Clara Schumann's own piano.

Holywell Music Room, Oxford Lieder Festival 2015
Holywell Music Room, Oxford Lieder Festival 2015
On of the enjoyable things about the festival's programming is the way that they use the whole day format to themes and topics. So in addition to the Clara Schumann day, there is a Bach study day which focuses on the Bach revival led by Mendelssohn, and that day the Rush Hour Concert includes Mendelssohn's C minor Piano Trio which quotes a Lutheran Chorale, and the late night concert is a selection of Bach cantatas performed in New College Chapel.

The festival will also be exploring some of Schumann's piano music, much of which is 'crammed' into the first day in a carnival of pianos to reflect Schumann's pre-1840 obsession with piano music. So Schumann's eleven early songs (from 1827/28) are being performed alongside five massive piano works, each in a different venue throughout the city during the first day of the festival. Sholto feels that the density of this programming helps reflect Schumann's obsession with a particular form. So during the day the audience gets to experience the pre-1840 Schumann then in the evening Christian Gerhaher's recital will include the Kerner Lieder written in 1840. The rest of the festival includes further piano works so that at least seven of the major piano works are being performed, with Tom Poster performing Waldscenen, and Alexander Panfilov (who won the Hastings International Piano Competition) playing the Liszt Sonata and Schumann Fantasy. These two works are linked, each being dedicated to the other composer, even though the two composers did not get on that well. And the evening of Alexander Pamfilov's recital Christoph Pregardien will be performing some of Liszt's songs.

This is fine example of the linked programming that is one of the festival's hallmarks. Sholto has tried to ensure that the chamber music is linked back to the songs in the way programming. And he feels that there is a nice pacing to this years festival, with the Bach study day providing a complete contrast and reducing the feeling of overkill. And then the Monday after that they abandon Schumann completely, and have Schubert during the lunchtime recital and Anne Sofie von Otter performing Shakespeare settings in the evening, giving people the chance to explore something completely different.

Joseph Middleton (piano) and Matthew Rose (bass)  Oxford Lieder Festival 2015  credit Robert Piwko
Joseph Middleton (piano) and Matthew Rose (bass)
Oxford Lieder Festival 2015  credit Robert Piwko
The festival will also be exploring how Schumann expanded the song-cycle genre, programming his song-cycles alongside Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte and Schubert's Schwanengesang.

The festival is continuing its innovative Sponsor a Song campaign, so that 'people can become arts patrons without having deep pockets', and Sholto comments that it is a nice way of supporting the festival, and there have been some lovely dedications.

Next year the festival will be turning its attention to Fin de Siecle Vienna, performing the complete Mahler songs. But with only 80 songs to perform , Sholto says that the festival will not be Mahler led and the programming will be wide ranging including music by Strauss, Brahms, Wolf and Zemlinsky, but they will be including the spirit of Schubert too. Sholto promises another starry line-up for the festival, and they hope to include something of the wider cultural atmosphere.

But before that, we have the 2016 festival to look forward to which runs from Friday 14 October to Saturday 29 October. They have had record ticket sales so far this year, and after booking opened five concerts quickly sold out.

Full details of the 2016 programme from the Oxford Lieder Festival website.

Planet Hugill at the 2015 Oxford Lieder Festival
Wolf, The Complete Songs - Sholto Kynoch's series on Stone Records

Elsewhere on this blog:

1 comment:

  1. Linked programming is, as you say, integral to Oxford Lieder, and it really adds to the song experience if one is able to take advantage. For example the Michelangelo Shostakovich was part of a rewarding all-day event, which included sonnet readings (in English and Italian) in the Ashmolean’s top-floor cafe and an informative talk on the museum’s Michelangelo drawings in the basement lecture theatre, as well as gripping performances of Britten and Shostakovich settings in the apt surroundings of the sculpture gallery. The fact that Schumann’s song output was much more modest than Schubert’s leaves room for putting it into context with similarly creative programming, and Kynoch is clearly seizing the opportunity. One intriguing example during the second week-end involves Dichterliebe. Bo Skovus makes a welcome first appearance at the Festival with Schumann’s great cycle on the Sunday evening (among other things), while Wolfgang Holzmair will use a late-night recital the evening before to give alternative settings of many of the songs, some contemporary with Schumann, others later. I’m not sure where this compilation fits into the song-cycle development theme, there could be an interesting discussion!


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