Friday 19 October 2018

A visit to Italy at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Reynaldo Hahn, painting by Lucie Lambert, 1907.
Reynaldo Hahn, painting by Lucie Lambert, 1907.
An Italian Songbook Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Tosti, Hahn; Alessandro Fisher, Gary Matthewman; Oxford Lieder Festival at the Sheldonian Theatre Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 October 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A delightfully engaging lunchtime in Italy with the young Anglo-Italian tenor Alessandro Fisher

This year's Oxford Lieder Festival celebrates The Grand Tour - A European Journey in Song. Besides the more obvious stops, there are lesser known ones and I went along on Wednesday 17 October to visit Estonia [of which more in my review of the rush-hour and evening concerts] and Italy. The lunch-time recital at the Sheldonian Theatre was a programme of songs by Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Tosti, along with Reynaldo Hahn's Venezia performed by tenor Alessandro Fisher and pianist Gary Matthewman. Before the recital there was a talk at the Ashmolean Museum by Michael Winterbottom, curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the museum, exploring Italy and the Grand Tour, and in the afternoon the Italian theme continued with Jessica Goodman talking about the Commedia dell'arte.

For their recital at the Sheldonian Theatre, Alessandro Fisher and Gary Matthew began with a group of Bellini songs all dating from 1829 (the year Bellini wrote La straniera). These are not as complex as the operas, they are essentially ariette created for the salon or the parlour, and all about the voice with the piano as basic support (often with a simple oom-pah bass rhythm).

For Malinconia, Ninfa gentile, Alessandro Fisher gave us a lovely Italianate line with melodies which really flowed. Per pieta bell'idol mio was a little bit closer to an aria, with drama in the piano introduction and in the vocal line. Fisher displayed a fine tenore di grazia type voice, with lovely event tone through the range and a nice combination of vibrancy and ease. He did not make the mistake of trying to do too much with the songs, yet put each one over with engaging grace. The final one of the Bellini group, Ma rendi pur contento was quietly moving, almost an operatic cavatina we rather missed the caballetta afterwards.

From Bellini we moved to a pair of Donizetti songs. Me voglio fa'na casa, which dates from 1837 (the year of Pia de'Tolomei and Roberto Devereux), was perky and characterful with popular hints in the music. Fisher's performance was delightfully full of character and Gary Mattheman made the most of the rather basic accompaniment. In all these songs, Alessandro Fisher's engaging stage presence counted for a lot, as he made each a little story to be told. The second Donizetti song Lu trademiento dates from 1842 (the year of Linda di Chamounix and the year before Don Pasquale), this was darker and more dramatic with a strong sense of narrative.

The group of Verdi songs took us to a few years later than the Donizetti ones, but still early in Verdi's career. Il poveretto dates from 1847 (the year of the original version of Macbeth), it was another striking story in song with a perky accompaniment, yet would we guess it was by Verdi? Il tramondo dates from a couple of years earlier yet seemed much more like Verdi with a wandering bass line and quiet, intense vocal line, creating something atmospheric. Brindisi (also from 1845) was far closer to an aria, with bravura hints in the vocal line yet always Alessandro Fisher's priority was a fine combination of line and text.

By contrast, Sir Paolo Tosti specialised in songs rather than composing them as a side-line and he had a significant career in the UK. 'A vucchella from 1907, setting Gabriele d'Annunzio, proved to be a delightful melancholy waltz with some lively details in the piano, and both performers gave it the necessary light touch. Sogno (from 1896) was a touching piece, lyrically flowing and beautifully crafted.

Reynaldo Hahn's Venezia sets six poems in Venetian dialect evoking the life and loves of gondolieri. I first came across the cycle in a performance by Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson with the Songmakers Almanac, and have performances by Rolfe Johnson and Martyn Hill on disc. So though the cycle is a Peruvian-Frenchamn setting Venetian, I associate it with the lyric English tenor voice. To this mix, Alessandro Fisher added a native speaker's way with the text and a certain Italianate inflection in the music, yet the melismatic line still flowed in a beautifully easy manner. The result was very engaging.

Again we got a strong sense of Fisher's storytelling gift with little touches of drama in the vocal line. The melismas in the second song, La barcheta, were beguilingly haunting whilst the third, L'avertimento, was taken at quite a lick, with a torrent of words and gestures too. The final song was simple and lovely, but both Fisher and Matthewman did a lot with it.

We were treated to an encore, a classic from a later generation of Italian composers, Leoncavallo's Mattinata. Fisher is a former member of Oxford Lieder Festival's Young Artist Programme and is clearly a talent to watch. We caught him in Salieri's La scuola de gelosi with Bampton Classical Opera [see my review] and Anthony saw him in Mozart's Bastien and Bastienne with Classical Opera [see Anthony's review]. Looking ahead we will be seeing him in very different repertoire, as he is singing the tenor solo in Britten's War Requiem in Lincoln Cathedral (the first time the work has been performed there).

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Untold riches - music from Estonia & the Baltic at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Southbank Sinfonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy in Grieg, Prokofiev and Beethoven (★★★★)  concert review
  • A Bernstein Celebration - London English Song Festival - concert review
  • Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes (★★★) - theatre review
  •  Something for everyone: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess from English National Opera (★★★★)  - opera review
  •  Handel's Radamisto from English Touring Opera (★★★★½) - Opera review
  • Portrait of a life (or many): Art songs from the African diaspora (★★★★) - concert review
  • Crowd-funding & collaboration: new choral music from Lumen  - interview
  • Double concerto for bandoneon and violin (★★★½) - CD review
  • The choral music of Richard Allain (★★★½) - CD review
  • Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots returns to the Paris Opera - Opera review
  • Modified Rapture: Verdi's Aida from the Met (★★★½) - Opera review
  • The Emperor's Fiddler - violinist David Irving on historical approaches on his new disc - interview
  • Schubert's Winter Journey - Robin Tritschler and Malcolm Martineau at Wigmore Hall  - (★★★★★Concert review
  •  Home

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