On Saturday, 28 October, in the visually and acoustically attractive setting of the Saint John the Evangelist Church in East Oxford, the 2017 Oxford Lieder Festival came to a sublime conclusion that seemed to summarise this year’s success, this festival’s expansion in its reach and in its inspiring musical and intellectual ambition. The Oxford Lieder Festival is an increasingly important annual world class event. So I want to write a bit about this concert and some of the other 125 or so happenings that occurred in Oxford across two weeks because it seems more and more to me that this particular celebration of the art of lieder set firmly in a thematic and cultural context is now as inspiring as any of the major festivals of song anywhere in Europe.
Indeed, I would not be surprised to find that many people now consider this the premiere festival of its kind in the world. Certainly it is attracting an increasingly international audience, many of them now regulars; and the highest calibre performers. It also provides a springboard for new artists; and a kind of academy for teaching the next generation. It has an enviable programme of master classes, training events and concerts given by the students.
If you attend this festival, you will hear some of the most skilled and important interpreters of this repertoire available today, including a range of the most thrilling accompanists working closely with the singers. Each festival is built around a different theme; every concert, class, lecture and event is lovingly and intelligently built to reflect that theme. If you have the time to spend, you can hear the most stimulating and informative lectures (often illustrated by young musicians), attend the master classes, even enjoy meals that reflect this year’s theme. During the two weeks of the festival there is something to do at every hour of the day. And one of the festival highlights and culminating events, always looked forward to by the aficionados, is the Master Course Concert given by the international students who have come to study with several of the established singers who are giving the evening concerts. This year there was even a Viennese café to go to when you wanted a break or a chance to talk to other people attending the festival.
But the heart of the two weeks is, of course, the series of concerts that have been pulled together by the entrepreneurial skills of the founder and boss, Sholto Kynoch. Kynoch himself is a considerable musician and he was the accompanist, as seems to be traditional now, for the final concert as well as several others. Soprano Birgid Steinberger and bass-baritone Stephan Loges were the singers, performing fifteen of Mahler’s Wunderhorn Songs as the final event. They not only sang but acted every word and note with immense commitment and real understanding of how the music and texts complemented and informed each other. In the first half there were several humorous moments, double takes and ironic underpinnings; and by the end, when they performed in sequence Wo di Shonen Trompeten blassen and Urlicht, they reached a level of the sublime that had the audience totally enthralled and spellbound. When Birgid Steinberger finished the last note of the Urlicht, we all sat in rapt silence for nearly a minute before bursting out with roars of approval. The duo and their accompanist went on to please everyone with wonderful encores by Brahms, bringing to a conclusion not just a memorable evening but a truly moving and enlightening experience.
The theme this year was The Last of the Romantics:Mahler and Fin-de-Siecle Vienna and there was a very attractive booklet produced for people who attended; it was full of informative and helpful background essays that set the biographical, cultural and historical context of the festival’s theme. The official opening concert included the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment playing for Shoenberg’s re-orchesations of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Lieder Eines FahrendenGesellen as well as some gorgeous Strauss songs. This band returned to play Strauss’s own score for the 1925 German film of Der Rosenkavalier, which turned out to be not just a showing of the opera in mime but a story based on the opera wittily rewritten for the screen by Hoffmansthal himself and definitely a major silent film.
Among the many brilliant recitals that followed, it would be invidious to talk about the great successes of an Ian Bostridge or a Sarah Connolly, of Anna Stephany or Roman Trekel, of a hugely popular Roderick Williams or the Patti String Quartet, when there were also superlative concerts by young artists, some wonderful master classes to attend, chamber music from the period as well. I don’t think there was a dud in the mix.
I found particularly memorable also a recital given by the baritone Benjamin Appl with Graham Johnson. They presented a varied programme that was sheer delight from start to finish; they played to a sold-out and very enthusiastic audience in the historic Holywell Music Room. Of course, another delight of the festival is that it is taking place in one of the most interesting and beautiful cities of Europe. When you are not immersed in the music, you can explore Oxford colleges, try some terrific restaurants, do a pub crawl, mingle with the students who have just come back from their summer vacations, visit museums like the Ashmolean and the Pitt Rivers which are world class, go book shopping in a number of superb book stores and visit the Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday markets in Gloucester Green. You can stay in either luxurious or picturesque hotels or some very pleasant bed and breakfast establishments. And the centre of Oxford is mall and contained, so that you can walk everywhere you wish to go. The lieder festival takes place in a number of fascinating and usually historic locations.
I want to celebrate what happened in the 2017 festival; but I suppose that really what I most want, while still enthusiastically under the spell of this fine experience, is to suggest you keep an eye out for next year’s Oxford Lieder Festival and attend as much of it as you can. The theme has already been announced as The Grand Tour: A European Journey in Song. Very apt for the last year in which the UK will still be in the EU?
If you are a lover of lieder, of art song, and of exploring beautiful cities such as Oxford; and if you can take two or so weeks off and get to Oxford from wherever in the world you happen to be – or even if all you can manage is a few days – I recommend strenuously that you should.