Oxford Lieder Festival

Oxford Lieder Festival Opening Weekend

Concerts and silent film
Produced by the Oxford Lieder Festival
Opening Night Concert
Der Rosenkavalier silent film
Louise Alder, Soprano; Toby Spence, Tenor; Dietrich Henschel, Baritone
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Conductor: Thomas Kemp

This year’s Oxford lieder Festival got off to a wonderful start on Friday 13 October 2017 first with some exciting lectures and events during the day and then with the opening concert in Christopher Wren’s 17th century Sheldonian Theatre, a place that has hosted Mozart, Haydn, Herbert von Karajan, Janet Baker, Daniel Barenboim and many other musical luminaries. Now it was the turn of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the baton of Thomas Kemp performing with complete conviction the brilliantly conceived settings by Arnold Schoenberg of Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Das Lied von der Erde. To lighten the tone there were also four orchestral songs by Richard Strauss performed beautifully and with great emotional understanding by soprano Louise Alder. She has just the right stunning, bright yet creamy tone for this music and was a huge hit with the audience. Dietrich Henschel performed the Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen with perfect musicality and apt lugubrious sadness; and he was joined for Das Lied von der Erde by the Toby Spence who gave us the three tenor songs with terrific and edgy intensity. Thomas Kemp and his orchestra were first-rate both in their sensitive support of the singers and in the beautiful purely orchestral sections. Das Lied von der Erde achieved some of the most incandescent and spiritually satisfying moments I have ever heard in this music. This was music making of the highest order.

And then on Sunday Kemp and his orchestra returned to play live in front of a large screen accompanying the legendary 1927 silent film of Der Rosenkavalier in the Town Hall. This proved to be a huge treat. The film itself was written by Hugo von Hoffmansthal and if you know the opera it is fascinating for the changes he made to the plotting, the ways in which he took advantage of the medium to enhance the story telling. We even meet the Feldmarschal in this one; and the ending of more Marriage of Figaro than the opera. It is fascinating to see Octavian played by a male actor who was probably in his twenties, especially in the Mariandel episodes; and also interesting that Baron Ochs, yet again, is played by someone a good twenty years older than he is supposed to be. I mean, if the Marschallin is about 32 and they grew up together, how did he get to be about 55?

One of the revelations is the whole design element by Alfred Roller who was the designer of the original 1911 stage production and who has preserved a great deal of that concept in this clearly big-budget film. This is film making at the level of D W Griffiths with a battle scene for the Marschallin’s husband, the acting out of the arrival of the Rosenkavalier through the streets of Vienna, and a major masked ball in the grounds of the palace of Schonbrunn. Digital effects did not exist in those days so it is pretty impressive to see all those extras in the crowd scenes. But the biggest revelation was, of course, the score that Hofmannsthal persuaded Strauss to write for the film and which Strauss himself conducted at times. Though the music is mostly adapted from their opera, there is wonderful additional music to accompany aspects of the film that open out the story.

The acting was superbly convincing, if mildly clutch and grope. Huguette Duflos is the Marshallin, Jaque Catelein is Octavian, Elly Felicie Berger is Sophie and the Baron Ochs is played by the comic Michael Bohnen. A new major role written into the film is that of the Field Marshall himself, played as a very attractive character by Paul Hartmann. As a friend of mine said, you suddenly realize that the language of silent film was centred on physical movement and that the voice took over from that when sound came in. The somewhat exaggerated facial expressions, the arm gestures, make perfect sense in the context of a movie where you cannot hear what they are saying but have to read on inter-titles. You are also constantly informed emotionally by the musical accompaniment. Sadly, the last section of the film is missing and had to be reconstructed with titles and stills; but it still made perfect sense and was utterly engaging. It was a lovely experience. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Thomas Kemp was the star of the evening, never out of synchronisation with the film, always playing with the kind of lush romantic sound that suggested echt-Richard Straus.

I think that the Oxford Lieder Festival is such a good thing to attend because any individual concert or event seems well thought through and stands on its own. And yet there is an overarching theme that binds all the events together. This year it is Mahler and fin-de-siecle Vienna that are in the spotlight and along with all the recitals and concerts there are fascinating lectures to attend, a Viennese café reconstructed for you, and myriad other imaginative touches. The events take place all over Oxford, some in historic venues such as the Sheldonian or the Holywell Music Room (the oldest custom built concert hall in Europe which opened its doors in 1748); some in new venues such as the Jacqueline de Pre Theatre at St Hilda’s college, so you also get to explore the town. And finally there is an excellent booklet with excellent essays on Mahler and his Vienna that has been produced for the festival, covering the literary and artistic background, an excellent essay on Alma Mahler and another on what came after Mahler.

The Festival continues until 28 October and if you do not live in Oxford it is worth considering a trip to there for at least some of the events if you love lieder, or fascinated by the culture of fin-de-siècle Vienna. The longer you can stay, the more events you can attend, the more immersive and fascinating you will find it.

For more information go to: www.oxfordlieder.co.uk