Friday 16 October 2020

From early Schubert to late Geoffry Bush: Robin Tritschler and Graham Johnson at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Graham Johnson & Robin Tritschler at the Oxford Lieder Festival 2020
Graham Johnson & Robin Tritschler at the Oxford Lieder Festival 2020
(Photo taken from live-stream)

Barber, Schubert, Ives, Duke, St Edmonds, Clarke, Argento, Bush; Robin Tritschler, Graham Johnson; Oxford Lieder Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 October 2020
Schubert's earliest song-cycle and an exploration of the signs of the zodiac by Geoffrey Bush form the centrepiece of this fascinating recital

The Oxford Lieder Festival is in full swing with a whole host of events on-line. I caught tenor Robin Tritschler and pianist Graham Johnson's lunchtime recital on Monday 12 October 2020, which was streamed live from the Holywell Music Room. Entitled Songs of the Zodiac, the programme centred on the song cycle of that name by Geoffrey Bush setting 12 poems by David Gascoyne, alongside songs by Samuel Barber, Charles Ives, John Duke, John St Edmunds, Rebecca Clarke, Dominick Argento and Gottfried Stölzel/JS Bach and
Schubert's first song-cycle.

The programme began with Benjamin Britten's realisation of Bist du bei mir (then thought to be by JS Bach but now attributed to Gottfried Stölzel), with Tritschler's beautifully shaped line supported by the rich harmonies of Britten's realisation, giving a somewhat romantic feel to this Baroque piece. Samuel Barber (1910-1981) wrote his 1953 cycle Hermit Songs for soprano Leontyne Price. A collection of ten songs, some quite short, which set modern translations of anonymous poems by Irish monks and scholars of the 8th to 13th centuries, Tritschler and Johnson performed three of them 'Church bell at night', 'Promiscuity', and 'The Desire for Hermitage'. Having Barber's songs sung by Tritschler's lyric tenor brought a greater sense of intimacy to the music, a sense that these were three short eaves-droppings on the months. Tritschler brought out the way that Barber's tonal melodic lines were very much shaped by the words. The third of the songs moved from the short aphorism to something larger and more intense and romantic, with the lovely way the richly imaginative piano writing, sensitively played by Johnson, supported Tritschler's rhapsodic account of the tenor line.

Schubert's astonishing Einsamkeit is arguably young composer's first song cycle. He wrote it in 1818, but continued to tinker with it for four years, and it sets a long six-part poem by Schubert's friend Johann Mayrhofer (1787-1836) which may have been specially written for the composer. He may have written it in response to the challenge of Beethoven's song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, and the work is structured in contrasting sections rather than as a large-scale ballad. Schubert was still only 21 when he wrote it, a remarkable achievement. Whilst the work aims at a sort of seven ages of man, there is something rather classical about the work's structure that harks back to the cantata form, and reminds you that Schubert had lessons from Antonio Salieri. You wonder why the work is not better known, perhaps because of the extreme philosophical musings of the text, but Tritschler and Johnson proved powerful advocates, with Tritschler being almost mesmerising in the solo tenor part.

The next group of six songs paired composers based in the USA with European poets, many of them being alternative settings of well known song-texts. We started with Heinrich Heine's Ich grolle nicht set by Charles Ives (1874-1854), giving us a rather different feel to Schumann's setting. Rather thoughtful, this was in Ives' romantic manner without the startling harmonic innovations of his later period, all movingly realised by Tritschler and Johnson. Samuel Barber's A E Housman setting is lyric and romantic, but has a very different atmosphere to English settings of Housman and felt more European in influence. John Duke (1899-1984) became best-known for his art-songs. He studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore where his tutors included pupils of Clara Schumann and Franz List. His setting of Loveliest of Trees is a beautifully constructed lyrical ballad. John St Edmunds (1913 - 1986) sets WB Yeats' The Sally Gardens as an engagingly delightful waltz (though in fact in 5/8). Rebecca Clarke (1886 - 1979) created something very different in her 1928 WB Yeats setting, A Dream. Here we have far greater hints of early 20th century modernism, and significant regret that Clarke's output declined after her marriage. Finally, in this group a wonderfully catchy and rhythmically jazzy setting of Thomas Nashe's Spring by Dominick Argento (1927 - 2019)

Geoffrey Bush (1920 - 1998) did not formally study composition at college, though he did a B. Mus at Oxford. He had composition lessons with John Ireland, and Bush's composition career seems to run in a determinedly independent manner, his style tonal yet complex. His Songs of the Zodiac was written in 1989 and dedicated to Britten and Pears. Each of the twelve songs (described by the composer as twelve variations) brings out the characteristics of that particular sign. Each of the songs is quite short, and much of Bush's vocal writing feels almost instrumental, with the voice often independent of the piano and sometimes unaccompanied. Bush's writing is highly varied, providing vivid contrasts and evoking the text, the music in a highly distinctive voice. The result is intriguing, engaging and, with its use of spoken text, sometimes takes a wry, almost satirical tone. Again, you wonder why the work is not better known, and we must feel very grateful to Tritschler and Johnson for bringing the cycle back into the concert hall. 

Elsewhere on this blog
  • 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
  • Bach, contentment and our perception of time: the OAE and Dr Fay Dowker at Kings Place  - concert review
  • The Passing of the Year: Voces8 in Jonathan Dove and Alec Roth at Kings Place - concert review
  • Surrender to the craziness of it all: Poulenc's Aubade and Le Bal masqué at St John's Smith Square - concert review
  • Not toeing the line: Kristjan Järvi on deliberately creating his own sound-world on Nordic Escapes, his first disc of entirely his own music  - my interview
  • Home

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