Wednesday 26 October 2022

'The Swedish Nightingale' and 'Letters from Home', my final visit to the Oxford Lieder Festival

Alex Ho: Letters from Home; The Swedish Nightingale - Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann; Jia Huang, Satoshi Kubo, Camilla Tilling, Paul Rivinius; Oxford Lieder Festival
Alex Ho: Letters from Home; The Swedish Nightingale - Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann; Jia Huang, Satoshi Kubo, Camilla Tilling, Paul Rivinius; Oxford Lieder Festival
Reviewed 25 October 2022 (★★★★)

Alex Ho's touching cycle about a Chinese father's relationship to his distant son, alongside Camilla Tilling's engaging evocation of the concert life of Swedish soprano Jenny Lind

My second day at the Oxford Lieder Festival (25 October 2022) ended with the evening recital from soprano Camilla Tilling and pianist Paul Rivinius at the church of St John the Evangelist, Iffley Road. They presented their programme The Swedish Nightingale about the soprano Jenny Lind and featuring songs and piano pieces by Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann. At the beginning of the evening, two of the festival's emerging artists, baritone Jia Huang and pianist Satoshi Kubo performed Letters from Home by Alex Ho, the festival's new associate composer.

Alex Ho's first commission from the festival is premiered today (26 October 2022), but as a sort of preview, Jia Huang and Satoshi Kubo performed Ho's 2020 cycle Letters from Home setting poems by Theophilius Kwek. The four poems (largely in English but with some Chinese phrases) depict the complex relationship between father and son as the son leaves China to live in Britain, the first three being letters from father to son, getting progressively more intense and anxious, the final one being the son's repeated attempts to write to his father. Ho's language was largely tonal, combining complex piano writing with more straightforwardly lyric vocal writing, mixing in some Chinese and elements of spoken text.

'Have you been eating' moved from the lyrical to the rather more intensely dramatic, whilst 'Bermondsey' was something of a patter song, given a vivid performance by both Huang and Kubo. 'Are you there' was rather touching at first, and somewhat stark with a melismatic vocal line over low piano notes, but the father becomes increasingly distraught, and the song ended with an intense climax.  In the final song, 'Dear Baba', the son tries to articulate his response, hesitant, unaccompanied and high in the voice. Even when the piano did come in, the music was spare. The result was a striking piece, giving a touching performance by Huang and Kubo. Singing from memory Huang successfully brought out the personal element in the mini-drama.

Jenny Lind (1820-1887) was one of the most highly regarded singers of the 19th century, but she retired from the operatic stage at only 29 and had a 30-year career giving song recitals. Camilla Tilling and Paul Rivinius performed songs and piano pieces by Mendelssohn and Schumann, and a Chopin piano piece, interleaved with Tilling's anecdotes about Jenny Lind which built a picture of the singer's close relationship with Mendelssohn and with the Schumanns. In fact, Lind's relationship with Mendelssohn was so close, so intense that rumours still persist about it, and it is known that many of Mendelssohn's letters to her were destroyed. 

We began with Mendelssohn. Andres Maienlied 'Hexenlied' was light, yet vivid and Tilling really sold the song, by contrast Die Liebende schreibt was gentle and interior, the voice simply a thread, and Allnächtlich im Traume seh' ich dich was distinctly skittish. In the elegantly expressive Der Mond, Tilling's voice was again a thread. Next came a piano solo, Spinnerlied busy yet light and delightful.

The question of why Lind was so popular came up, with Tilling reading a couple of contemporary critical descriptions, and it seems that there was nothing conventional about her singing, it was its naturalness (in contrast to the highly finished bel canto style) that impressed.

Mendelssohn's Der Blumenstrauss was lyric and flowing, whilst Frühlingslied  overflowed with Romantic lyricism, ending in rapture. Perhaps the best known of Mendelssohn's songs, Auf Flügeln des Gesanges was elegant yet understated, and this group ended with the lyric melancholy of Sukeika.

On Mendelssohn's sudden death, Lind drew strength from her faith. She visited the ailing Chopin in Paris and Tilling read a description of the two of them spending a whole day at the piano. And we heard the elegant melancholy of Chopin's Nocturne in C minor.

Lind's relationship seems to have been with Clara as much as with Robert Schumann, and certainly Lind and Clara Schumann would perform together. Lind came into their circle when she met Clara by accident when Clara turned up unexpectedly at the Mendelssohn's in 1846.

The Schumann songs began with a group of Goethe settings from Lieder und Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister, mixing Mignon with the Harper. 'Heiss’ mich nicht reden' was quite free, very dramatic and rather dark, whilst 'Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt' had a lovely freedom to it. In fact, it rather reminded me of a Schumann piano piece with vocal obbligato, and Tilling brought a fine sense of freedom and rubato to the vocal line. 'So lasst mich scheinen' had a similar feel, with Tilling performing with freedom and lovely engagement, yet sensitive to the pairing with Rivinius. 'Singet nicht in Trauertönen' was lighter and elegantly done, with the final lines positively suggestive.

Schumann's Novelette, Op. 21 No. 1 came next, a piano solo that was anything but light, despite the title. It seems that when visiting Robert and Clara Schumann, Lind sang a lot of Robert's songs and Clara was positively ecstatic about her performances and reportedly Robert was too.  

Tilling brought out the charming simplicity of 'Marienwürmchen' (from Lieder-Album für die Jugend), whilst Der Himmel hat eine Träne geweint was lyrically beautifully and the song is one that Lind sang with Clara Schumann's accompaniment at a public recital in 1850. 'Der Nussbaum' from Myrthen was all flowing elegance, ending with melancholy, whilst 'Frühlingsnacht' from Liederkreis Op. 39 was impulsively romantic and positively overflowing at the end. We finished with the last song that Lind sang, An den Sonnenschein, simply phrased and characterful.

This was a lovely evening, and the way Tilling wove the songs and narrative together was rather special, giving us a different outlook on these songs. Tilling and Rivinius had a lovely way of encapsulating each song, charming and engaging, always different.

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