In concert – Oxford Lieder Festival celebrates Saint-Saëns with Elizabeth Watts, Victor Sicard & Anna Cardona, Fenella Humphreys & Martin Roscoe, Adèle Charvet & Anne Le Bozec

Various venues in Oxford, Saturday 9 October. Artists as listed below

Written by Ben Hogwood from online streams

The Oxford Lieder festival is into its 20th year, a cause for celebration indeed. It has become one of the UK’s finest classical music events, lovingly curated and produced but gathering increasing levels of enthusiasm every year.

The 2021 model is ideally weighted, with live music events streamed and recorded for posterity – an ideally weighted dual approach in these uncertain times. Titled Nature’s Songbook, it has set aside days for anniversary composers Saint-Saëns (100 years since his death) and the lesser-heard Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar (150 years since his birth)

Saint-Saëns had his day on the Saturday, offering audiences a chance to appreciate his under-heard Mélodies in the context of better-known chamber and stage works, not to mention works by pupils and contemporaries. Baritone Victor Sicard & pianist Anna Cardona (above) were on first, the 2011 winners of the festival’s Young Artists Platform giving a recital from the ideal acoustic Saint John the Evangelist.

They began with a pupil and close friend of the featured composer. Gabriel Fauré was to become one of the very finest French composers of the 20th century, his output headed but not restricted to sublime contributions in the world of chamber music, piano and song. We heard his first published song cycle Poème d’un jour Op.21, a brief affair – which is ironic, since the subject of Charles Grandmougin’s verse was exactly that. Sicard found his feet in the slightly sorrowful first song, with an easily flowing piano part from Cardona. There was strength of character in the second, and wistfulness in the third as the day-long love affair fizzled out.

Saint-Saëns melodies followed and – as is often the case with this composer – hit the mark immediately. The attractive La Brise was secured by a rustic drone from Sicard’s left hand, which also gave its urgency to the next song. Emotionally the heart of this selection lay in La splendeur vide Op.26/2, which was followed by the Danse macabre, Saint-Saëns working with inner resolve. Perhaps it lacked a little edginess but a really strong connection between the two was clear.

Fauré’s pupil Ravel was next, and Sicard found the exquisite, timeless quality of Kaddisch, its melodic inflections beautifully expressed and contrasting with the questioning L’Énigme Éternelle. Following this was Histoires Naturelles, the ideal choice given the festival’s theme. Cardona had a strong descriptive role to play, with some lovely detail portraying Crickets, and The Swan too, which had strong characterisation. The Guinea Fowl’s ‘rowdy and shrill’ ending was perfectly judged by the pair – as was an exquisite encore of Chanson française.

Later we further examined the link between teacher and student in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, as violinist Fenella Humphreys and pianist Martin Roscoe played sonatas by Saint-Saens and Faure. In an aside to the audience, Humphreys revealed it was the first time the duo had performed the Saint-Saens Violin Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.75 (1885), realising a long-held dream of playing a work in public she had loved since childhood.

The closer acoustics of the hall took a little while to adjust to – certainly on the live stream – but it was easy to admire the duo as they met the challenges of the busy first movement head on, getting beneath the tumultuous phrases to the deeper emotion below. The softer-hearted second theme, a chorale, with rippling arpeggios from the piano, reminded us that the Organ Symphony was not far off – and it was beautifully rendered here. A keenly felt Adagio led to a balletic third movement, initiated by Roscoe’s nicely pointed piano part. There was however a strong sense of everything pointing towards the finale. Its tremendous technical demands were comfortably conquered, but again the music’s feeling won the day, Humphreys playing winsome long phrases. Both players enjoyed the return of the ‘chorale’ theme, but also the peal of bells evoked by Roscoe from the piano.

Fauré’s Violin Sonata no.1 in A major Op.13 is an early work, written nine years earlier, when it was given a glowing review by his teacher. Humphreys spoke affectingly of its significance during lockdown, and it was clearly a tonic for her to be playing it again. The two players dovetailed beautifully, Roscoe’s flowing introduction picked up seamlessly by Humphreys’ lyrical phrases. The slow movement took time for deep thought, its gently undulating piano a foil for the violin’s probing melodies, gradually building to a deeply felt apex. The scherzo was winsome, its syncopations tripping over each other happily. An ardent account of the fourth movement found the players deep in conversation, right up to the end of this richly rewarding piece. It is difficult to write about what makes Fauré such an attractive composer – his gifts are plentiful but elusive – yet this performance had all the qualities that so impressed his teacher.

A strong cast of thirteen musicians assembled for a pair of concerts in the Saint John the Evangelist church. They were led by soprano Elizabeth Watts, and baritone Felix Kemp, with pianists Jâms Coleman, Martin Sturfält joined by principal players of the Echor Chamber Orchestra (Anna Wolstenholme (flute / piccolo), Jernej Albreht (clarinet), Owen Gunnell (percussion), Jonathan Stone and Sara Wolstenholme (violins), William Bender (viola), Nathaniel Boyd (cello), Laurence Ungless (double bass)

It is funny to think Saint-Saëns prohibited performances of Le Carnaval des Animaux in his lifetime, for fear of being dismissed as a frivolous composer. In the event the suite was published a year after his death, and the piece has had an enduring appeal ever since. The Oxford Lieder edition recognised that appeal but interspersed his suite with an array of animal-based songs from contemporaries and countrymen, together with short readings from nonsense verse by Ogden Nash.

The programme was brilliantly conceived but was too big, including a total of 17 songs alongside the Carnival without a break, meaning the flow was difficult to pick up at times. That said, the imaginative set of works largely succeeded thanks to the artistry on stage. Watts’ versatility was evident in the oppressive heat of Chausson’s La Caravane, its powerful vocal line in thrall to Wagner, and also in the amusing tale of La Cigale et la fourmi as set by Offenbach, with some brilliant high notes at the end.

There was a striking duet between Watts and flautist Anna Wolstenholme, portraying Roussel’s Rossignol mon mignon, before the soprano found the nub of Hugo Wolf’s solemn Wie lange schon war immer mein Verlangen. Felix Kemp was an effective foil, capturing the micro portraits of animals as realised by Poulenc from Apollinaire’s poetry, as well as Britten’s elusive Fish in the unruffled lakes.

The Carnival itself was a huge amount of fun. From the boisterous Introduction and Royal March of the Lion onward, it was nice to see the performers enjoying themselves in this irrepressible music. Double bassist Laurence Ungless caught the character of The Elephant, lumbering into view, while The Swan was beautiful and effortless in the hands of Nathaniel Boyd. Pianists evinced some ready laughter, before we returned to Watts for the rather lovely final song, Grieg’s own portrayal of the swan, which found her using a third language of the evening. The Echor soloists wrapped up with a celebratory finale, putting the cap on a concert which may have been too long, but which was ultimately enjoyable.

A packed day ended with a late evening recital from Adèle Charvet & Anne Le Bozec. Subtitled Mélodies on Tour, their program began with three English-language songs – two about sleep from Gounod, by turns perky then lustrous, with a setting of Longfellow’s poem Sleep. Saint-Saëns himself was next, evoking a heady atmosphere with A Voice By The Cedar Tree but then agitated in La mort d’Ophélie, where Charvet held an impressively strong tone.

The recital alternated songs by our chosen composer with a well-chosen selection of eight songs from Pauline Viardot, to whom Saint-Saëns dedicated his opera Samson et Dalila. Her song Lamento was the most directly communicative song, and an indication of why she is finally starting to get the exposure she deserves in a male-dominated field. Noch’Yu, one of two Pushkin settings, was evocative in this setting, but the pick of the eight was Aimez Moi, which brought a rapt stillness to proceedings.

Saint-Saëns‘ two settings of Uhland featured a striking piece of writing in the low register during Antwort, very well handled by Charvet, then the composer exaggerating his feelings rather in Ruhetal. Later we heard Guitares et Mandolines, the composer relishing the chance to depict the instruments in Anne Le Bozec’s deft accompaniment. The agitated Tournoiement spun itself into an eternal whirlpool.

There was time for two songs from Massenet, another underrated songwriter – his Crépuscule and Nuit D’Espagne expertly crafted examples, the latter with a Habanera-like profile – to which we returned in Viardot’s Madrid. The context of these night-time songs helped put the seal on a fascinating and richly rewarding set of concerts, showing the strength of depth French composers have to offer.

For further information on this year’s Oxford Lieder festival, you can visit the event’s website here

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