Wednesday 26 October 2022

Julian Phillips new piece alongside Britten and Schubert in a wonderfully imaginative programme for tenor, horn and piano at Oxford Lieder Festival

Julian Phillips: The Country of Larks, Britten: Canticle III: Still falls the rain, Schubert: Auf dem Strom, Brahms, Beach; Stuart Jackson, George Strivens, Jocelyn Freeman; Oxford Lieder Festival

Julian Phillips: The Country of Larks, Britten: Canticle III: Still falls the rain, Schubert: Auf dem Strom, Brahms, Beach; Stuart Jackson, George Strivens, Jocelyn Freeman; Oxford Lieder Festival
Reviewed 25 October 2022 (★★★★½)

A wonderfully imaginative programme combining three different approaches to tenor, horn and piano, including Julian Phillip's striking new Robert Louis Stevenson setting

Stuart Jackson was supposed to premiere Julian Phillips' The Country of Larks at the Oxford Lieder Festival in 2021, alas illness prevented this and the premiere actually took place in Ludlow this Spring, but the work returned to Oxford on 25 October 2022, when tenor Stuart Jackson, horn player George Strivens and pianist Jocelyn Freeman gave a revised version of that planned 2021 recital at the Holywell Music Rooms for the early evening concert at Oxford Lieder Festival. Written for tenor, horn and piano, Julian Phillips' The Country of Larks was paired with Britten's Canticle III: Still falls the rain and Schubert's Auf dem Strom, plus songs by Brahms and Amy Beach.

Jackson, Strivens and Freeman began with Julian Phillips' The Country of Larks setting a text adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson's early essay Autumn Effect (1875) about a country walk ending in hearing larks. Phillips has written the cycle as four linked movements, but it almost plays continuously. The initial 'Recitative' set the scene, a sort of walking figure in the piano that hinted at operatic recitative without quite going there, lyric arioso from the tenor complemented by horn playing that created a duet. Throughout the work, Strivens' horn intertwined with Jackson's tenor in a rather magical way and whilst this was a tenor song cycle, the horn part was very, very significant indeed with Strivens playing almost continuously. The same atmosphere continued in 'Walking Song', but the music gradually intensified, the recitative/arioso style giving way to something more atmospheric. Phillips' writing was lyric and tonal, without talking down to his audience, and it certainly seemed to be gratefully written for Jackson's voice. 'Cloud and Sun' moved between atmospheric, descriptive moments and elements of recitative, with the walking figure in the piano reoccurring in an almost Mussorgskian way.  With the final movement 'Lark Song' we had some magical textures, with Jackson's high tenor set against trilling horn and the sound of larks high in the piano, and the music moved into something approaching mystical rapture, climaxing in a stunning solo movement for Strivens. But the walk continued, and the ending merged the walking figure with the larks. 

This was a challenging piece for all three performers, and each brought it off stunningly and the three created a little bit of magic.

Jackson and Freeman then gave us a group of Brahms songs, bringing out themes from the Phillips and the Britten, moving from larks to nightingales to rain. There were other connections too. One of the songs came from the Songs Op. 59 sung by Yajie Zhang at the lunchtime recital [see my review] setting poetry by Robert and Clara Schumann's youngest son, Felix.

Lerchengesang (Op. 70 no.2) was gentle, with Jackson almost caressing the vocal line and hints of those larks in the piano. An die Nachtigall (Op. 46 no.4) brought out Jackson's story-telling side, and it was all effortlessly engaging with a lovely sense of line. Versunken (Op. 86 no.5) was fast and vivid, with waves in the piano whilst Jackson combined voice, eyes and body to tell this story. Regenlied (Op. 59 no.3) was more of a ballad, alternating lyrical and perkier sections, both performers displaying clear enjoyment and some lovely rain in the piano.

Britten's Canticle III: Still falls the rain was written in 1954 and premiered in 1955 by Peter Pears (tenor), Dennis Brain (horn) and Britten himself. The work sets Edith Sitwell's poem, written in 1941 after the 1940 air raids in London. Britten wrote the canticle in the aftermath of his opera The Turn of the Screw and it uses a similar theme and variations form. Horn and piano perform a sequence of variations between the six verses of the text and only in the final section do horn and tenor perform together. 

Strivens and Freeman brought out the intense dramatic side of Britten writing in the horn sequences, moving from lyric intensity to vividly urgent to positively angry. The tenor's verses each begin with the refrain 'Still falls the Rain' which was hauntingly sung each time by Jackson using a hushed mezza-voce. But in each verse, he really brought out the intensity of the word setting, keeping a flexibility in the line yet with a subtle edge to his voice. Britten uses a sort of free recitative, and Jackson emphasised this by really spitting his words out, making progressively more vivid drama until the powerful final (and longest) verse. The final section became a sort of calming chorale for tenor and horn after the storms. 

Next followed a group of songs by Amy Beach. These all seemed to partake of the language of the parlour ballad, yet each was somewhat more complex than expected, never quite settling into the ballad form. In this, they rather reminded me of songs by Sir Paolo Tosti, and you imagined Beach composing with a volume of Tosti's songs sitting on the piano.

Autumn Song, setting words by Beach's husband, was delightful and Beach wrote with a lovely freedom, never quite settling into the song we expect. Forgotten featured a fabulous melody, but again Beach avoids the obvious and Jackson really brought out the intensity of the end. The year's at the spring, the first of two Browning settings, was fast, vivid and urgent with a fine big finish. Ah, Love, bout a day, was melodic, but Jackson and Freeman brought out the drama and Jackson really sold the song.

We ended with Schubert's Auf dem Strom, for tenor, horn and piano. This is a less demonstrative piece than Schubert's other major song with instrumental obbligato, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. Schubert sets Rellstab's poem in a strophic manner, and the joy of the performance was the way the three performers heightened and varied the emotions between the verses, ending in something approaching rapture.

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