Monday 19 October 2020

Beethoven and Black muses at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Stephan Loges
Stephan Loges

Before Beethoven
/ An Imperfect Tapestry; Stephan Loges, Eugene Asti, Gweneth Ann Rand, Simon Lepper; Oxford Lieder Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 October 2020
The final day of the festival, when I catch Beethoven, his contemporaries and predecessors at lunch, and an imperfect tapestry of black muses, composers and performers at tea time

Saturday 17 October 2020 was the last day of this year's Oxford Lieder Festival, and I caught two concerts live from the Holywell Music Room. At lunchtime, baritone Stephan Loges and pianist Eugene Asti performed Before Beethoven, a programme of songs by Beethoven, his contemporaries and predecessors, J.C. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Zelter. Then for the early evening concert, soprano Gweneth Ann Rand and pianist Simon Lepper gave us An Imperfect Tapestry, ‘a personal reflection of Black voices and muses, stretching back in time to the Black Venus, who inspired the poetry of Baudelaire’ with music by Debussy and Ravel, alongside Abel Meeropol, Harry Sever, Errollyn Wallen and Adolphus Hailstork.

Gweneth Ann Rand
Gweneth Ann Rand
With Before Beethoven, rather than presenting us with a random selection of Beethoven's songs (his song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte was performed earlier in the festival), Stephan Loges and Eugene Asti paired Beethoven's songs with those of his contemporaries and predecessors, allowing us to experience Beethoven in context rather than sitting against the sophistications of late Schubert. In song, Beethoven rarely breaks the classical bounds, in the way he does in other genres, so the comparison with contemporaries and predecessors was valuable.

We began with a songs by JC Bach (1714-1788) and Beethoven, four prayers setting texts by Christian Furchtegott Gellert (1715-1769). Bach was a great influence on Mozart, and whilst Grusse Gottes in der Natur and Bitten both seemed rooted in the Baroque there were forward-looking hints too which linked to Beethoven's intense Vom Tode and the powerful Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur, a song which could not but be by anyone else.

Next came a group about relationships, setting mainly texts by Christian Felix Weisse (1726-1804) from the charm and character of Haydn's Die zu späte Ankunft der Mutter and Mozart's Die Verschweigung to Haydn's more sober Lob der Faulheit and the distinctly perky charm of Beethoven's Der Kuss.

For love songs, we had a compare and contrast as Beethoven's rather civilised and classical Andenken was followed by Schubert's touching Adelaide, setting the same text as Beethoven's well-known song. Mozart's Das Traumbild returned us to classical charm, whilst Schubert's Seligkeit was delightfully dancey.

The final group all set text by the great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, so we had the lyric simplicity of Schubert's Nähe des Geliebten, Beethoven's Mignon in which at the end the song breaks free from its classical bounds, and the more urgent Mailied, and a pair of songs by Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832), who was not only a friend of Goethe's but an influential teacher of Mendelssohn. We finished with Schubert's Wilkommen und Abschied, the vivid urgency and passion taking us into another song-world.

The problem with on-line recitals is that, whether live or recorded, your listening is conditioned by the limitations of the recording process. Both of Saturday's recitals highlighted this in some way. For the first recital, the recording overemphasised an element of harshness in Stephan Loges' voice, which would not be there in a live acoustic. And for the second recital, the recording seemed to not favour Gweneth Ann Rand's voice; Rand has quite a dramatic soprano voice (her repertoire includes Aida and Senta), a type which can be difficult to capture in recording. At the recital, the recording accentuated an element of wildness and highlighted her vibrato in a way which would not be there in live performance. But if you got beyond this, then there was lots to enjoy and to think about.

With no audience, Gweneth Ann Rand and Simon Lepper's programme played continuously, but it benefited from this, I think. The traditional Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, sung strongly by Rand flowed seamlessly into three Debussy settings from Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire, all poems inspired by the Haitian-born actress and dancer who was the poet's muse. Rand gave the songs a strong vocal presence, her rich voice surrounded by the subtle web of Lepper's piano playing. The words, rightly, seemed to dominate here, this was as much about the poetry as the music, and a certain tension in Rand's voice seemed entirely appropriate for the subject-matter, these are not comfortable songs. 

This uneasiness continued with Strange Fruit the song written by Abel Meeropol (1903-1986), under the pseudonym of Lewis Allan, and made famous by Billie Holiday. It took some adjustment to hear the familiar music not in Holiday's throaty roar but in Rand's almost eerie high soprano. The result was certainly intriguing. This led into the rich colours of Maurice Ravel's Chansons madecasses. The accompaniments, originally written for flute, cello and piano, came over as even more remarkable in Simon Lepper's playing of the piano version with its strange harmonies and rich colours. Rand's performance also brought out the slightly disturbing element of the songs, and in the second one Aoua there were moments when we almost felt we approached the music of Olivier Messiaen.

Another powerful traditional song, Black is the colour of my true love's hair led to a setting of Maya Angelou by the young composer and conductor Harry Sever. I had come across this song, Tears, by accident on the web a few weeks ago and getting reacquainted with it here only served to emphasise the work's remarkable power with the combination of stark vocal line and rich harmonies. Having recently interviewed composer Errollyn Wallen for an interview, it seemed beyond coincidence to find Rand and Lepper performing Wallen's Peace on Earth, a delicate almost eerie piece. The recital concluded with 'Decisions' from Songs of Love and Justice by Adolphus Hailstork (born 1941), a cycle which sets the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was a stirring and striking piece, almost declamatory with rhapsodic, melismatic moments and ending very dramatically with the words 'What are you doing?'. It certainly made me want to hear the whole song cycle.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • The BBC Symphony Orchestra at 90: in advance of the orchestra's celebratory concert, Tony looks at its distinguished history - feature
  • Six Songs of Melmoth: premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad's new song-cycle at Oxford Lieder Festival  - concert review
  • A song is a song is a song: composer Errollyn Wallen on her multi-faceted career and her forthcoming EP with King's College Choir  - interview
  • From early Schubert to late Geoffry Bush: Robin Tritschler and Graham Johnson at the Oxford Lieder Festival - concert review
  • Author of Light: The Sixteen in an engaging and uplifting programme of Tudor music at Temple Church - concert review
  • Glyndebourne's outdoor Offenbach comes indoors with a terrific ensemble cast - opera review
  • Their job is to be advocates for the music: Rakhi Singh of Manchester Collective on the group's recent EP Recreation  - interview
  • Rarity & intensity: Ermonela Jaho's debut recital, Anima Rara, explores repertoire associated with her great predecessor Rosina Storchio - CD review
  • Intimacy, grandeur, a new work and a new edition: Purcell odes and more from the English Concert - concert review
  • Haydn, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky from the Mithras Trio at Conway Hall - concert review
  • Illuminating with wit what it is to be an accompanist: Helmut Deutsch's memoirs translated by Richard Stokes  - book review
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