Wednesday 23 October 2019

A Night at the Museum: the Oxford Lieder Festival at the Ashmolean Museum

A Night at the Museum - Benjamin Appl, Graham Johnson (Photo Oxford Lieder Festival)
A Night at the Museum - Benjamin Appl,
Graham Johnson (Photo Oxford Lieder Festival)
A Night at the Museum; Benjamin Appl, Graham Johnson, Michael Scott, Rowan Pierce, Nathaniel Mander; Oxford Lieder Festival at the Ashmolean Museum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 October 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
An amazing evening at the museum combining three different events, songs inspired by Greek texts amidst Ancient Greek statues, Purcell amidst 17th century painting and a lecture in the roof-top restaurant

The complex evening at the Oxford Lieder Festival on Sunday 20 October 2019 was A Night At The Museum, which combined three events at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. A recital by Benjamin Appl and Graham Johnson, performing songs by Schubert, George Butterworth, Peter Warlock, Lennox Berkeley and Benjamin Britten setting poetry inspired by the Ancient Greeks in the museum's Greek and Roman sculpture gallery, a recital of Henry Purcell songs by Rowan Pierce and Nathaniel Mander in one of the fine art galleries containing 17th century painting (many English), sculpture (mainly bad-tempered cardinals) and furniture, and a lecture on the influence of myth today by Michael Scott, professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick.

A Night at the Museum - Rowan Pierce  (Photo Oxford Lieder Festival)
A Night at the Museum - Rowan Pierce 
(Photo Oxford Lieder Festival)
Each of these three events took place more than once, with different groups of people making their way round the museum at different times. A complex feat of organisation which worked brilliantly, though swan-like, I am sure that underneath there was a great deal of hard work that we did not see.

It was very evocative and rather moving to hear Benjamin Appl and Graham Johnson perform surrounded by the museum's fine Classical sculptures. They opened with a set of Schubert songs. Die Götter Griechenlands (The Gods of Greece, setting Schiller) was slow and intense, with fine phrasing and full of melancholy longing. In such a close context, an intimate yet resonant acoustic, we could appreciate every detail of Appl's vocal gestures. Der entsühente Orest (Orestes purified, setting Mayrhofer) had a strong vocal line over a rolling piano accompanied, very classical in outlines but with strong character underneath. An die Leier (To my lyre, setting Bruchmann) was constructed almost as a sequence of aria and recitative, strong declamation alternating with lyrical aria-like moments. Finally, in this group the thrilling and terrifying Gruppe aus dem Tartarus (Group from Hades, setting Schiller). Starting dark and intense, then ratcheting tension up until the thrilling ending. It was almost operatic in scale, with a fearsome piano accompaniment.

George Butterworth's A.E. Housman setting Look not in my eyes used one of the poems mentioned by Jennifer Ingleheart in her afternoon lecture [see my article], so we were well-prepared for the Classical allusions. Appl's English is good, highly expressive but with a slight tang to it which adds piquancy. Peter Warlock's Heraclitus, setting William Cory's English translation of Heraclitus, was surprisingly complex with a striking, wayward vocal line. Lennox Berkeley's two song from Three Greek Songs both set English versions of Ancient Greek texts. To Aster was expressively neo-classical with a piano part constantly moving on. Spring Song was fast and perky, with a dashing piano accompaniment. Benjamin Britten's Sokrates und Alcibiades (from his Sechs Hölderlin Fragmente, his only German settings) was rather austere and chromatic, becoming more lyrical towards the end.

For the concluding part of the recital, Appl and Johnson returned to Schumann with three larger scale songs. Atys (setting Mayrhofer) started rather lyrical with Appl clearly delighting in the story telling, then the drama developed towards the striking ending where a quietly touching moment led to the uncompromising final lines, and a touching piano postlude. Fahrt zum Hades (Journey to Hades, setting Mayrhofer) was darkly dramatic, contained and intense with Appl sometimes fining his voice down to nothing. Finally, the Goethe setting, Prometheus, a strong and dramatic performance which was almost operatic at times. The poem's structure was reflected by Schubert in music of fascinating variety, with a stupendously trenchant ending.

As an encore we were treated to Schubert's Ganymed.

Our group then went up to the top floor restaurant to hear Michael Scott's entertaining talk about our modern attitudes to myth, how they still interweave through modern life in everything from politics to video games.

A Night at the Museum (Photo Oxford Lieder Festival)
A Night at the Museum
(Photo Oxford Lieder Festival)
We concluded in the Mallett Gallery, which really evoked a period salon; large for a room yet small for a concert hall. Nathaniel Mander played a handsome 18th century harpsichord from the museum's collection and Rowan Pierce had a backdrop of two fine Anthony Van Dyck portraits. All their songs came from Orpheus Britannicus, which Henry Purcell's widow Frances published after the composer's death. From Silent Shades 'Bess of Bedlam' was given a poised performance with Pierce bringing out the sheer variety in the piece without ever quite going to extremes. This was followed by a communicative, direct and rather affecting account of The Man-Hater: The Cares of Lovers from The History of Timon of Athens. An appealing account of Celia has a thousand charms from The Rival Sisters or the Violence of Love followed, and then a direct and thoughtful performance of Music for a While (which comes from Oedipus, King of Thebes), full of character. O lead me to some peaceful gloom (from Bonduca or the British Heroine) was rather flowing, with constantly changing emotions. Finally, She loves and she confesses, too, perky and characterful with Purcell placing quite an irregular melody over the regular ground bass.

Throughout, Pierce was finely supported by Nathaniel Mander and the lovely resonant tones of the Ashmolean Museum's harpsichord. As a delightful end to a striking evening, they gave us Sweeter than Roses as an encore.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Housman and the Greeks at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • Spectacular and distracting: Weber's Der Freischütz in Paris from Insula orchestra and Cie 14:20 (★★) - my opera review
  • A striking new work: the London premiere of Richard Blackford's Pieta (★★) - concert review
  • He discovered something new in himself in the music: Christophe Rousset on exploring 19th century French opera, and continuing his Lully cycle  - interview
  • The Outsiders Fight Back: London Song Festival's imaginative commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots (★★★) - concert review
  • Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, volume II , the Sixteen on CORO (★★) - Cd review
  • A Day of the Dead at the Oxford Lieder Festival: Doric String Quartet, Thomas Oliemans, Malcolm Martineau, Prof. Helen Swift - concert review
  • 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
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