Wednesday 20 October 2021

Birdsong on the River: Ailish Tynan, Ian Wilson and James Gilchrist at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Hark! Hark! the Lark and On the River; Ailish Tynan, Ian Wilson, Libby Burgess, James Gilchrist, Ben Goldscheider, Jocelyn Freeman; Oxford Lieder Festival
Hark! Hark! the Lark
and On the River; Ailish Tynan, Ian Wilson, Libby Burgess, James Gilchrist, Ben Goldscheider, Jocelyn Freeman; Oxford Lieder Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 October 2021
Birdsong in music in an imaginative programme for soprano, recorder and piano, and a last-minute change fails to disrupt the beautiful profundity of Schubert's Auf dem Strom for tenor, horn and piano

For my second visit to the 2021 Oxford Lieder Festival on Tuesday 19 October 2021, I caught a pair of concerts which imaginatively explored aspects of the festival's theme this year, Nature's Songbook. In Hark, Hark the Lark, devised by pianist Libby Burgess, soprano Ailish Tynan, recorder player Ian Wilson, and Burgess interleaved songs on themes of birds and birdsong with music for recorder inspired by the very songs themselves. In the evening, the festival's programme was somewhat overtaken by illness, and for the rush-hour concert, On the River, pianist Jocelyn Freeman, and horn player Ben Goldscheider were joined by tenor James Gilchrist (standing in at short notice for an ailing Stuart Jackson) for a programme themed around Schubert's Auf dem Strom.

Ailish Tynan, Ian Wilson and Libby Burgess' Hark, Hark the Lark at the Church of St John the Evangelist was preceded by a fascinating talk by Lucy Lapwing on Birdsong, where she took us through the wide variety of songs we might hear in an ordinary garden, and how to identify the different birds (I particularly loved the way to differentiate between a wood pigeon and a dove). The talk is free on the festival's website

The centrepiece of Hark, Hark the Lark was the recitative and air 'Hush ye Pretty Warbling Choirs' from Handel's Acis and Galatea, with all three performers and around it was song and recorder solo. We began with two songs, Frank Bridge's So early in the morning and Samuel Barber's The Crucifixion (from Hermit Songs). The Bridge was delightfully skittish, and introduced us to Tynan's engaging manner, lively demeanour and bright, flexible soprano. The Barber was slow and serious, with distant hints of folk-melody in the music. Then, off-stage, came Ian Wilson in American composer Daniel Goode's The Thrush from Upper Dunakyn, written in 1982 it is comprised of fragments of notated birdsong proved highly evocative of the real thing.

Chausson's song Le colibri (The Hummingbird) featured quiet lyrically intense music with a wonderfully seductive melody; hummingbird as sexual metaphor. Then Schubert's Shakespeare (in translation) setting, Ständchen (not the best known one) was positively joyous. Then from the rood screen, Ian Wilson performed a sequence of melodies from The Bird Fancyer's Delight of 1717 which were designed for you to teach your captive song bird! Melodies of great charm, bird song made more 18th century formal.

Roger Quilter's version of the traditional Robert Burns song Ye Banks and Braes moved it firmly into the art song territory, beautifully sung here by Ailish Tynan, who followed it with a Scots Gaelic song (sung in English) by Kenneth MacLeod and collected in the Hebrides by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, The Wild Swan a sober yet haunting melody. And Wilson rounded off the group with the sadly melancholy Ramage (Cry of the birds) from 18th-century French composer Joseph Bodin de Boismortier's Suites de pieces, Opus 35.

Handel came next with Wilson, Burgess and Tynan launching directly into 'Hush ye Pretty Warbling Choirs' from Acis and Galatea and I had not quite realised how much humour there is in the piece. The three performers played it quite straight, but Tynan's delightful delivery and Wilson's patent ignoring of the singer's instructions to 'Hush' made this a musical and dramatic delight indeed, with some terrific singing and playing. Wilson then moved onto The English Nightingale from another collection of recorder music, the Dutch nobleman Jonkheer Jacob van Eyk's Der Fluyten Lusthof (The Flute's Pleasure Garden) of 1644, highly decorative but quite formal too.

Faure's Verlaine setting Sourdine was a surprise insertion, but it does indeed end with a nightingale and the song was given a calm and luxuriant performance by Tynan and Burgess with a sense of time suspended. Goethe's Ganymed followed, not in the Schubert setting but one by Hugo Wolf which brings out more the sense of rapture and sexual anticipation in the text with Tynan delivering it with a sense of wonder allied to slow sensuality. Birdsong in music would not be complete without Olivier Messiaen and Ian Wilson was accompanied by Libby Burgess in Messiaen's haunting Vocalise from 1935, in fact commissioned for a vocal tutor which included vocalises by Ravel and Rachmaninov!

Mahler's early Ablösung im Sommer from Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit gave us an engaging story complete with hints of more popular music in the piano. Then Judith Weir's intriguing Fish Bird, setting an English version of a text from Taoist philosophy, a deceptively simple piece which had you both entrance and wanting to learn more. This group ended with a final recorder piece, Music for a bird by Hans-Martin Linde (born 1930) from 1968, which uses all sort of amazing experimental playing techniques yet managed to be highly evocative of bird-song.

Finally a pair of pigeons. First Schubert's Die Taubenpost from Schwanengesang in touching yet heart-warming performance, and in complete and bathetic contrast, Tom Lehrer's Poisoning pigeons in the park brought things to a hilarious close. That Tynan's diction was so clear, meant that we heard every word of Lehrer's deliciously subversive song.

This was a highly imaginative programme, full of good and unusual things, and clearly a lot of work had gone into the research. But what made it was the way the three performers brought their different musics to life. Tynan is a wonderfully engaging performer whether doing comedy or tragedy, and each song was a little story to be told, and she was deftly partnered by Burgess throughout who moved easily through the various styles. Wilson brought great technical skill to his recorder playing, moving easily between a tiny sopranino and a giant tenor, along with a sense of style.

That the rush-hour recital had a similar coherent scheme says a great deal of the skill and professionalism of the three performers, tenor James Gilchrist, horn player Ben Goldscheider and pianist Jocelyn Freeman, in bringing things together with a new tenor at the last possible moment. And nothing in James Gilchrist's performance suggested anything but practised ease.

We began with a group of Ivor Gurney songs, which cycled through the seasons but also paralleled the journey from birth to death. Then came a Nocturne for horn and piano by Franz Strauss (Richard's horn-player father), then a group of Schubert songs which also moved through the seasons, and finally Auf dem Strom, Schubert's Rellstab setting which was written for his only major public concert, on 26 March 1828, the first anniversary of Beethoven's death.

In Ivor Gurney's Down by the Salley Gardens (which eschews the traditional tune completely), Gilchrist's performance combined lyric beauty with a sense of him confiding in you something highly personal. Throughout the recital, I was struck by Gilchrist's remarkable ability to combine superb clarity of diction with a profoundly beautiful sense of line. It was never one or the other, simply both. Gurney's Desire in Spring featured an endlessly flowing line shaped to the poetic needs, apparently effortless. All night under the moon was anything but a simple night scene, haunting and complex its intensity veering to transcendence. The Fields are Full featured expansively long lines moving ever onwards, whilst An Epitaph in old mode had a lovely undulating line and a touching end. Finally, in this group, came the gentle passion of You are my sky building to a powerful ending.

Franz Strauss (1822-1905) was extremely conservative in his musical tastes, eschewing the modernisms of composers such as Richard Wagner (even though he led the horn section of the Bavarian State Opera in the premieres of Tristan und Isolde, Das Rheingold, and Die Walküre, and was invited to take part in the premiere of Parsifal at Bayreuth). His Nocturno for horn and piano was published in 1864, and opens with a lovely, long horn melody over rippling piano. Whilst there were stormy episodes, the opening theme kept coming back, and throughout Ben Goldscheider played with an effortlessly even tone, great warm, flexibility and expressivity. Pure magic.

The Schubert group began with Die Sommernacht (The Summer Night), almost a recitative which ends in a tiny arioso, but Gilchrist and Freeman made it work perfectly. This was followed by the vivid descriptions of the weather in Herbst (Autumn), yet for all the stormy moments Gilchrist's beauty of line never faltered. Winterlied (Winter Song) had an interesting lilt to it, this Winter wasn't all bad, and this group ended in Spring with Frühlingslied (D919), joyous bounce and engaging performances, with Gilchrist almost dancing.

We finished with Auf dem Strom, and the horn starts things off, with Goldscheider giving us fabulous line and even tone, then throughout the songs five verses voice and horn shadow each other as a duet, with the horn have momentary interludes between verses. We moved from lyric intensity to real drama, often with a sense of restless emotion flowing through the music, to the final strong passion. It is a remarkable piece, completely sui generis, and here received a very fine performance indeed.

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