Thursday 26 October 2023

Stories in music in Oxford: visual inspirations from the Mendelssohn siblings, William Blake in song & image, vivid story-telling from Wolf & Mörike

Oxford International Song Festival
Mendelssohn, Looking at Blake, Hugo Wolf: Mörike Lieder; Harriet Burns, Alessandro Fisher, Eugene Asti, Robin Tritschler, Christopher Glynn, Thomas Oliemans, Hans Eijsackers; Oxford Lieder Festival

Music, visual arts and story-telling in a day at the Oxford International Song Festival, ranging widely over the Mendelssohn siblings' relationship, 20th century settings of Blake, and Hugo Wolf in devilishly good form

Tuesday 24 October 2023 was a day of stories at the Oxford International Song Festival. Things began with soprano Harriet Burns, tenor Alessandro Fisher and pianist Eugene Asti in songs by both Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, then at rush hour, tenor Robin Tritschler and pianist Christopher Glynn combined 20th-century settings of William Blake with the artist's own images, and in the evening we had the vivid story-telling of baritone Thomas Oliemans and pianist Hans Eijsackers in a selection of Wolf's Mörike-Lieder.

The day had begun with a Show and Tell at The Weston Library, looking at Mendelssohn-related manuscripts in the collection including the stunning Schilflied, a song manuscript intricately illustrated in watercolour by Mendelssohn himself. Confession time, I didn't manage to attend this. But the lunchtime concert followed on from this with The Mendelssohns at the Holywell Music Room with soprano Harriet Burns, tenor Alessandro Fisher and pianist Eugene Asti in a programme of songs by Felix and Fanny, from their very first surviving songs to their last, with seven of the songs having manuscripts housed in the Bodleian. The centre-piece of the programme was Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel's Five Songs, Op. 10 which included her last composition and Felix Mendelssohn's Six Songs, Op. 71, published after his death and including two songs written after Fanny's death.

The beginning, with the siblings' songs for their father's birthday, was creditable, with a hymn-like song from Felix (Alessandro Fisher) and a more romantic ballad from Fanny (Harriet Burns). Felix's first journey to Scotland was reflected in a real curiosity, his arrangement of a traditional Scots song with Harriet Burns in vivid Scots' mood, whilst the two sang the more art-song-like Volkslied setting a German translation of Burns, creating drawing room elegance.

Fanny's Grillparzer setting, Italien (published as part of Felix's Op. 8 in 1828) was a perky dance that Burns made all about the words, whilst Fisher spun a finely vibrant line in Felix's rather more sophisticated Ventianisches Gondellied. Felix's marriage was reflected in a trio of numbers. First the ardent joy of Fanny's Goethe setting, Suleika und Hatem, sung as a duet, then the elegance of Mendelssohn's Allegretto in A major played by Eugene Asti, and finally Burns in Felix's song Die Freundin with Burns making its flowing charm rather touching. Another duet, Fanny's Lenau-setting Die Sennin, was a striking piece about a cowgirl that moved from the folk-inspired to something darker.

Fanny's Five Songs, Op. 10 published posthumously and including her final work, reflect the confident  style of a mature composer. Nach Süden (Burns), setting text by her husband, plunged straight into a vibrant romantic world whilst Vorwurf  (Fisher), setting Lenau, was serious and sober, a sophisticated song that was far more than just melody and accompaniment. A second Lenau setting, Abendlied (Burns) was rather flowing and swayed entrancingly, whilst Im Herbe (Fisher) featured elegant melancholy that Fisher intensified to a real climax. The final one, Bergeslust (Burns), setting Eichendorff, was surprisingly perky, with Burns performing with engaging rapture, no hint of what was to come.

Felix's Six Songs, Op. 71 span the period before and after Fanny's death. Tröstung (Fisher) was all flowing melancholy, with Frühlingslied (Burns) contrasting with engaging joy, Burns having a real spring in her step. An die Entfernte (Fisher) wasn't at all downbeat, this had a lyrical melody with a catchy rhythm in the piano. Schilflied (Burns), setting Lenau, was dark yet barcarolle-like though growing more and more serious. This led to Auf der Wanderschaft (Fisher), also setting Lenau and written after Fanny's death. Almost Schubertian, the piano part featured a sombre, steady tread as Fisher wove a passionate line over. Finally, Nachtlied, an Eichendorff setting sung as a duet and featuring a rather significant tolling bell.

This fascinating survey ended with Felix's final song, the touching Old German Spring Song, shared between the two performers. 

The early evening concert took place in the Levine Building at Trinity College. This was more auditorium that concert hall, and enabled Robin Tritschler (tenor) and Christopher Glynn (piano) to present a sequence of largely 20th-century settings of William Blake's texts alongside images from Blake. These included, of course, the wonderfully illuminated versions of some of the poems that Blake produced alongside his more mystical pieces. The selection of texts did include some of the strange, more mystical elements but there was a preponderance of the pastoral and of infant joy. The acoustic was on the dry side, but such was the accuracy and beauty of Tritschler's tenor that this mattered hardly a jot.

Tritschler sang from memory, spotlighted as the lights were down, and throughout seemed to be narrating to us, telling us a series of stories in vivid fashion. Diction was superb and whatever the style of the music, his approach to the words was mesmerising.

Theodor Chandler (1902-1961) was an American composer new to me. The Lamb was charming, folk-ish in inspiration, whilst A Cradle Song was darker, edgier, and Memory combined a fairly straightforward lyrical vocal line with a more wandering, disturbing piano, an interesting commentary on the words.

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) managed to make the rather icky words of Infant Joy into something striking, but her version of Tyger, Tyger was the real deal. Powerful, striking stuff with remarkable musical rhetoric. Arthur Somervell (1863-1957) made Piping Down the Valleys Wild very English, though Tritschler brought a lovely swagger to. Both Nurse's Song and Blossom were similarly folk-inspired, bringing out the pastoral elements in these. With Nurse's Song, Tritschler really highlighted the story aspect, whilst Blossom was nicely touching. The Wild Flower Song by Roger Quilter (1877-1953) managed to bring in a lot more than just English folksiness, but his Jocund Dance was swaggeringly folk-like. Daybreak was wonderfully rhapsodic with rich harmonies.

Britten's A Poison Tree took the mood in a different direction entirely with its violence in the piano and edgy declamatory voice, the two performers making it mesmerising. Granville Bantock (1868-1946) was a welcome inclusion with Love's Secret, unashamedly romantic yet transparently written and creating something striking. Walton's Holy Thursday (from A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table) was not as edgy as the Britten, but it was still a welcome change of harmony and texture. RVW's London, is from his Blake songs for voice and oboe, this one just for voice giving a striking change of mood and texture.

Back to America for Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) and Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920). Thomson's Divine Image was touching yet hymn-like whilst Tomlinson Griffes' Myrtle was full of controlled rapture.  We ended with Hubert Parry's version of Jerusalem in a lovely subtle performance that reminded us that this was a striking song before it became the hymn-like anthem.

What really made the event was the combination of Tritschler's gift for story-telling alongside Blake's vivid, disturbing, and intriguing images, always with the powerful support of Glynn's piano.

The evening concert returned to the Holywell Music Room, with Devilishly Good Songs, though the event was somewhat plagued. First Malcolm Martineau had to withdraw and was replaced by pianist Hans Eijsackers, then young artists Annabel Kennedy and Ana Manastireanu were beset by illness at such a last minute that the festival was not able to replace them.

So, in the event we had baritone Thomas Oliemans and pianist Hans Eijsackers in a selection of Wolf's Mörike-Lieder, a sequence of 17 of the songs. It was with writing these Mörike-Lieder in 1888 that Wolf really found his distinctive compositional voice.

We began with a sequence of outdoor encounters. Der Jäger proving to be a dramatic ballad with a complex piano part that disturbed the narrative, and Oliemans proving to be another superb story-teller. Throughout the evening you were aware of his relish for communicating with us, not just with voice, you could not but help notice his vivid, flashing eyes. Lied eines Verliebten was definitely stormy, this lover was certainly not relaxed, and we had more vivid storms in Begegnung

Nimmersatte Liebe featured a change of mood, with a real twinkle in Olieman's eye whilst he coloured every word. Der Tambour was similarly full of character, a lovely narrative including a sort of perky march in the piano. Something similar continued with Fußreise, the piano's march complementing the free-wheeling vocal line. 

With In der Frühe the mood took a darker, more intense turn that continued with a magical account of Um Mitternacht making it clear that his night was unsettled yet rapturous. After the restless night, An den Schlaf, Olieman's voice magically suspended over Eijsackers complex, chromatic piano.

Vivid contrasts next. First the free rapture of An eine Äolsharfe, and then the vivid drama and amazing climaxes in Der FeuerreiterHeimweh was lyrical, yet intense and edgy, whilst Im Frühling, with its complex harmonies, was certainly not an obvious evocation of Spring. 

The two songs Peregrina I & II led easily from one to the other, the postlude in the first linking to the prelude in the second. The first's lyrical beauty led to the more intense and complex second song as we realise the beloved is dead. Finally, Auf einer Wanderung, the first verse all perky charm, the second like a distant memory.

It is a long time since I have heard such a concentrated selection of Wolf's wonderful Mörike-Lieder (I first heard them in the mid-1970s as a student in Manchester sung by Benjamin Luxon). Throughout the performance we were aware of Thomas Oliemans' constant delight in telling us these stories in music, always supported by the consummate piano playing of Hans Eijsackers. The audience response was overwhelming and the two responded with a vividly bravura account of Abschied, the final song in the Mörike-Lieder. A second encore was Schubert, a magical end to a fine recital.

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