Tuesday 2 March 2021

Winter into Spring: Oxford Lieder Festival's Spring weekend concludes

Shostakovich: Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin - Lada Valesova, James Platt - Oxford Lieder Festival (photo taken from live stream)
Shostakovich: Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin - Lada Valesova, James Platt - Oxford Lieder Festival (photo taken from live stream)

Shostakovich, RVW, Schubert; James Platt, Lada Valesova, James Atkinson, Ailish Tynan, Iain Burnside, Julian Bliss; Oxford Lieder Festival at the Holywell Music Room

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 February 2021
The final two concerts of Oxford Lieder Festival's Spring weekend, ranging from Shostakovich and RVW to Schubert

Sunday's two evening concerts at Oxford Lieder Festival's weekend of song, Winter into Spring (broadcast live from the Holywell Music Room in Oxford), demonstrated the challenges of putting on concerts in the present climate. To add to the unfortunate but not unheard-of problem of a singer being ill, there was the added complication of another singer unable to travel due to the present restrictions. So this meant that both concerts were changed. Not that we noticed from the end results. 
Early evening we had James Platt (bass) and Lada Valesova (piano) in Shostakovich's Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin, Op.46, and RVW's Songs of Travel plus Silent Noon. Then in the evening, one of the festival's young artists, baritone James Atkinson did a group of Schubert songs accompanied by Iain Burnside, then soprano Ailish Tynan joined Burnside for further Schubert followed by songs with Irish connections by Herbert Hughes, Thomas Dunhill, Frank Bridge, James Joyce (arr. Edmund Pendleton) and Charles Villiers Stanford. The evening ended with Schubert's Der Hirt auf dem Felsen with clarinettist Julian Bliss.

I understand that James Platt and Lada Valesova's recital was arranged at very short notice. You couldn't tell.

They started with Shostakovich's Pushkin settings which Platt recorded in 2018 with Sir Mark Elder and the Halle (well worth catching with a terrific pairing of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5). The songs were ostensibly written for the Pushkin centenary and premiere with piano in 1940, but in a sense they were part of Shostakovich's personal journey following the decrying of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mstsensk in the official newspaper Pravda in 1936. The four romances are profoundly beautiful and very dark, are they about Pushkin, or Russia, or Stalin's great terror or Shostakovich himself? Perhaps a little of each. 

Looking very patriarchal with his long hair and terrific beard, James Platt sounded fantastic and fully at home in this soundworld. What I loved was the way that his dark, rich tones and terrific diction did not preclude a sense of lyricism and mystery. The second song, 'A youth and a maiden' was often fast and lively whilst the third 'Foreboding' was surprisingly lyrical, but with the fourth, 'Stanzas' was dark, foreboding and intense, over a steadily moving left hand in the piano. More and more please.

RVW's Songs of Travel, setting Robert Louis Stevenson, dates from 1900/1901 yet the cycle itself has a curious history owing to the vagaries of publication. The songs were published as two groups, and the composer witheld the final song which was designed to be performed only as part of the complete cycle, and so the cycle was only properly available from the 1960s.    

For 'The vagabond' Platt and Valesova laid out their stall, quite a fleet tempo, wonderfully fruity tone from Platt allied to a finely lyrical line and terrific diction. These virtues continued throughout a mesmerising performance, so that the 'The roadside fire' was wonderfully vital whilst 'Youth and Love' was sheer magic. But the core of the songs is that sense of mysticism in the countryside, something Platt and Valesova brought out in songs like 'In dreams' and 'The infinite shining heavens'. 'Bright is the ring of words' swaggered but had mystery too leading into the mysticism and magic of the final song, with it reminiscenes of the opening. As a sort of encore we got another RVW song, Silent Noon.

The evening concert opened with James Atkinson and Iain Burnside in Schubert, a group of songs about spring. First Liebesbotschaft, all youthful ardour yet with Atkinson providing a lovely rich baritone. Atkinson evidently sang in one of the lecture recitals in 2019, so it is great that he is now on the main stage and on this showing he will definitely be back. Am Bach im Frühling was lyrical but full of complex thoughts, and similarly the beautifully phrased Im Frühling was full of meaning. I have always had something of a problem with Ganymed, the result of Goethe's poetic rewriting and then Schubert's approach to it means that we are well away from Zeus abducting a boy for his own delicious ends. Here the ecstasy was quite sedate, but beautifully done.

Ailish Tynan then joined Iain Burnside for a Schubert group which began with Ständchen (D889) which had a delightful spring in its step. Schwanengesang (the song setting poetry by Johann Senn, not the song cycle) was slow and thoughtfully sombre, with a rather mystical piano accompaniment. Die Forelle was performed by both Tynan and Burnside with a glint in their eyes. Tynan is a terrific story teller whatever the song, and she really engaged here. Das sie hier gewesen was rather touching whilst they made Wandrers Nachtlied II (D 768) quietly mystical. We ended with Die junge Nonne, and this was not the usual show-piece but a quietly interior performance with Tynan sounding otherworldly and Burnside's piano bringing out her unsettled soul.

During the interval there was an engaging discussion between Petroc Trelawney (who was the continuity announcer for all the concerts at the festival), James Atkinson and festival director Sholto Kynoch.

Tynan and Burnside then returned with a group of songs either by Irish composers or setting Irish texts. First Herbert Hughes' The Spanish Lady, again Tynan delighting in telling stories with that glint in her eye. Then WB Yeats' The Cloths of Heaven, here in a setting by Thomas Dunhill which was rather touching with Tynan floating her line beautifully. Frank Bridge's James Joyce setting, Goldenhair was entirely new to me, and who knew that the two were almost exact contemporaries - Frank Bridge (1879-1941), James Joyce (1882-1941).

Joyce was also something of a musician, evidently. Bid adieu was a lovely, rather haunting song written by Joyce setting his own words and here heard in an arrangement by the American composer, Edmund Pendleton (1899-1987). Stanford's setting of John Keats, La belle same sans merci seems to be one of those songs that each singer can make very much their own. Tynan and Burnside definitely did that, gripping us with the story and delighting with the musical evocations of the text.

Finally, clarinettist Julian Bliss joined Tynan and Burnside for Schubert's Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. The work was written for the soprano Anna Milder-Hauptman who wanted a large-scale showpiece, and Schubert responded (tardily, it has to be admitted) with a scene of almost operatic scale which Milder-Hauptmann premiered in 1830 two years after Schubert's death. Milder-Hauptman herself must have been quite a performer, she was Leonore in Beethoven's opera in 1804, and in 1805, and in the final version, Fidelio in 1806.

Both Tynan and Bliss performed from memory which brought an additional level of intimacy to the piece, making it almost chamber music. Throughout their duettting was one of the delights of the performance. The first half was quite mystical, a long was from the vocal shopiece, but the final section was really vivid with clarinet and voice egging each other on towards the conclusion.

The concerts are currently available on-line at the Oxford Lieder Festival website.

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