Wednesday 16 October 2019

A Day of the Dead at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Thomas Oliemans (Photo Marco Borggreve)
Thomas Oliemans (Photo Marco Borggreve)
Day of the Dead at Oxford Lieder Festival; Ben Johnson, Roger Vignoles, Helen Swift, Doric String Quartet, Thomas Oliemans, Malcolm Martineau
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 October 2019
A glorious themed day at the Oxford Lieder Festival which took in song, literature, chamber music and much more

Tuesday 15 October 2019 was the Day of the Dead at Oxford Lieder Festival. Events began with a morning tour of Holywell Cemetery. At lunchtime Ben Johnson and Roger Vignoles moved slightly off theme with two 20th century song cycles which viewed youth from the vantage point of old age and mortality [see my review]. In the afternoon, Helen Swift, Associate Professor of Medieval French at the University of Oxford, presented her lecture Who am I: death and human identity in Medieval French Literature, with the rush hour concert from the Doric String Quartet being Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet. In the evening baritone Thomas Oliemans and pianist Malcolm Martineau gave a programme entitled Songs and Dances of Death where Mussorgsky's song-cycle of that name was surrounded by songs on similar themes by Schubert, Brahms, Faure, Saint-Saens and Joseph Kosma. The day was rounded off in the chapel of New College, with a concert from the Carice Singers, In Paradisum.

Doric String Quartet (Photo George Garnier)
Doric String Quartet (Photo George Garnier)
At the Holywell Music Room at 5.30pm, the Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington, Ying Xue, Helene Clement, John Myerscough) gave us a dramatic and very personal account of Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 'Death and the Maiden'. Written in 1824, the quartet dates from a period when Schubert was coming to terms with the seriousness of his illness, and he based the second movement of the work on his 1817 song, Death and the Maiden (which was sung by Thomas Oliemans in the evening concert), and in fact all four movements of the quartet are in minor keys. For the quartet's opening, there were two intensely dramatic gestures with intimate questioning responses, the music that followed was crisp, intense and very concentrated. And I was particularly struck by the use of portamento here, particularly from first violin Alex Redington. They created a very distinct character for the music, this was four people responding to each other sometimes with furious intensity and sometimes with great intimacy. And this was a very physical performance, all four performers expressed with their bodies as well. It was completely gripping. The second movement variations on the song felt haunting and haunted. Textures were delicate yet of concentrated intensity and never relaxed, and again moments of furiousness and passages of aetherial beauty.  The third movement Scherzo was short and characterful, full of marked articulations with a serene trio section. There was a concentrated intensity to the finale, it wasn't particularly loud yet felt wound tight, creating a gripping sense of a journey towards the furious conclusion.

After a short break to refuel and recover, we returned to the Holywell Music Room for the recital by the Dutch baritone Thomas Oliemans and pianist Malcolm Martineau. They opened with a group of Schubert songs, all touching on the theme of death, Fahrt zum Hades, Auf der Donau,  and Der Tod und das Madchen from 1817, Der Zwerg and Todesmusik from 1822. Oliemans has a dark, rich voice with a lovely lower register, and in Fahrt zum Hades he showed this off with a lovely unfolding of the classical line, supported by Martineau's nervous piano. They really brought out the large scale of the piece. Auf der Donau had a nice sense of journey with Oliemans' lyric line over Martineau's rippling piano, though there were moments of pointed drama, and a feeling of something more in the quiet ending. Der Tod und das Madchen was urgent and intense, with death's contribution being darkly seductive and hypnotic. Der Zwerg is a curious piece of Gothic horror, but Oliemans brought a fine range of colours to the words and articulated the changes of mood and character, so we had moments of vivid drama and an edge of the seat ending. Todesmusik was much more about lyrical beauty and classical shape, reaching real mysticism at the end.

Johannes Brahms wrote his Four Serious Songs in 1896, returning to the song form after a gap of some years, and approaching the work both as his own memorial and one for his friend Clara Schumann who died shortly after the work's completion. The first song Denn es gehet dem Menschen was full of dark colours in both voice and piano, it is very chorale-like at times with Oliemans giving us a strong lyric line, though there were vividly dramatic outburst with some fabulous piano playing from Martineau. In Ich wandte mich, Oliemans' lovely unfolding line created a consoling quality in the song, and he ended with the mesmerising intensity of really fined down tone. O Tod opened rhetorically, and then built to vivid intensity, before the consoling section at the end. Wenn ich mit Menschen unt mit Engelszungen redete opened with an unusually bravura gesture, and the work has a vivid restlessness to it, though the intensity of the final paragraph led to a beautifully consoling conclusion.

Modest Mussorgsky began his Songs and Dances of Death in 1875 writing three movements, all settings of poems by Arseny Golonsichchev-Kutusov from a planned sequence of twelve songs. He returned to the cycle in 1877 to write the fourth, and final song. The four songs present different personifications of death, building on the fact that in Russian death is personified as female. Lullaby sees Death lulling a sick child to permanent sleep. Oliemans was darkly mysterious at the opening, complemented by Martineau's sinuous piano. The two brought out the strong contrast between the two voices, Death and the child's anxious mother, with the eerie end with the child is finally quieted by Death. In Serenade, Death is a seductive cavalier singing to an ill young lady. The opening piano texture was fabulous, reminding us of the possibilities of Mussorgsky's influence on composers like Debussy. The initial gentle narrative led to Death's darkly seductive and powerful song, with Oliemans bringing a sinuous charm to both the musical line and his body. Oliemans is a very physical singer and despite that fact that he used music for all but the Brahms, was very expressive with his body. You sensed his reliance on the printed word in the Mussorgsky, yet he was still very physical and very communicative. Trepak opened with a lovely evocation of the dark forest, and the dance that is the way the blizzard drives the man to death was fabulous with strong rhythms and a vivid swagger. The quiet ending had flurries of dance, leading to an eerie postlude. Field Marshal presents Death as a field marshal presiding over the dead of the battlefield. Fast and vivid with a thrilling piano part, this had stupendous moments and quieter chilling ones too. Oliemans and Martineau's performance of this fabulous song cycle had a directness and uncompromising sense about it. And we felt too, the sheer challenge that the cycle seemed to represent for Oliemans, a challenge finely and memorably achieved.

Next came a  stunning change of mood, with the understated art of Gabriel Faure. Oliemans and Martineau were beautifully supple in Dans la foret de Septembre, whilst in L'Absent Oliemans almost caressed the line, and both performers created a subtle atmosphere which turned darker and more intense as we realise that the absent one is the poet, imprisoned and executed for his crimes. Au Cimetiere achieved its ends by simple yet subtle means, again with a supple line. The work built slowly towards the climax, and then the quiet opening verses returned, as if we see a funeral procession appearing and receding.

Camille Saint-Saens' song Danse Macabre is certainly a bit of fun, but it is also complex with a tongue-twister of a text. Oliemans brought out the words, performing with a real sparkle in his eyes accompanied by some fabulous playing from Martineau. The final work was a delightful chanson by Joseph Kosma with words by Jacques Prevert. Kosma is a fascinating figure, born in Budapest and studying with Bartok, he moves to Berlin and is in Brecht's circle, and then in 1933 to Paris where he writes for film and creates chansons!

Deux escargots s'en vont pour un enterrement d'une feuille mort (Two snails set out for a burial of a dead leaf) was a delightful shaggy dog story (they never reach the funeral and get tipsy instead). Oliemans clearly delighted in the story-telling and this was a real gem. For the encore, Oliemans and Martineau stayed with Kosma and Prevert, singing Les Feuilles Morts which is best known in its English version Autumn Leaves.

In the afternoon Helen Swift gave us a fascinating and erudite lecture about how Medieval French literature deals with  issue of who tells the story of who I am when I am dead, the shaping of who we are and who we are held to be. She brought in such characters (real and imaginary) as the poet Francois Villon (whose influence extends to modern pop song) and La Belle Dame sans Merci (who is even mentioned in a Flanders and Swan song) strikingly persistent figures across the ages and across works. A down to earth and characterful speaker, she coined the wonderful phrase 'Cemetery Fiction'!

Transport logistics meant that I missed the opening and closing events of the day, so I did not tour Holywell Cemetery, and was unable to hear the Carice Singers in Purcell's Funeral Sentences, Gesualdo's Responsories, and Grieg's Four Psalms (his last composition).

Elsewhere on this blog
  •  Intimations of mortality: A Young Man's Exhortation to Boyhood's End at Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • A work of scholarship and a fine performance: Academy of Ancient Music's new recording of Handel's Brockes Passion (★★★) - CD review
  • A barren emotional landscape barely disguised by the production’s kitsch fairy-tale opulence: Turandot, Met Live in HD (★½) - opera review
  • Bringing a rarity alive: Verdi's Un giorno di regno from Chelsea Opera Group (★★) - opera review
  • Voices in the Wilderness: cellist Raphael Wallfisch on his series of cello concertos by exiled Jewish composers - interview
  • The Song of Love: songs & duets by Vaughan Williams from Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams, William Vann (★★) - CD review
  • Will put a smile on your face: Vivaldi's L'estro armonico in new versions from Armoniosa  (★★) - CD review
  • 17th century Playlist: from toe-tapping to plangently melancholy, Ed Lyon & Theatre of the Ayre (★★★) - CD review
  • Magic realism, politics and terrific songs: Weill and Kaiser's Winter's Fairy Tale in an imaginative production from English Touring Opera - opera review
  • Orpheus goes to Hell: Emma Rice's lively new production somewhat misses the point of Offenbach (★★) - opera review
  • Thought provoking and engaging: Mozart's The Seraglio at English Touring Opera (★★) - opera review
  • Not letting the audience off the hook: I talk to Simon Wallfisch & Edward Rushton about performing Lieder, & about their new album - interview
  • Listening with new ears: Masaaki Suzuki conducts Mendelssohn's Elijah with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (★★½) - concert review
  • Home

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