Oxford Lieder Festival – Alessandro Fisher & Gary Matthewman: An Italian Songbook

Alessandro Fisher (tenor, above), Gary Matthewman (piano, below)

Bellini Malinconia, ninfa gentile, Per pietà bell’idol mio, Ma rendi pur contento (all 1829)
Donizetti Me voglio fa’ ‘na casa (1837), Lu trademiento (1842)
Verdi Il poveretto (1847), Il tramonto (1845), Brindisi (1845)
Tosti ‘A vucchella (1907), Sogno (1886)
Hahn Venezia (1901)

Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford
Wednesday 17 October 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The spectacular round of the Sheldonian Theatre proved the ideal setting for tenor Alessandro Fisher and pianist Gary Matthewman, with an attractive Italian recital continuing the Grand Tour theme of the Oxford Lieder Festival.

Fisher proved a consummate storyteller, and his asides to the audience between songs were ideally judged and set the music of the concert in context. There was deep, romantic love, humour and much merrymaking to be had over the course of the hour!

Photo (c) Johan Persson

Fisher and the ever-attentive pianist Matthewman filled the first half of their recital with songs from Italian composers known primarily for their opera – and indeed it did feel as though the tenor was singing excerpts from bigger, stage-bound works. The Bellini songs were straight and to the point – melodic and responsive to their text. Donizetti showed off the voice in Me voglio fa’ ‘na casa (I want to build a house) but cut straight to the heart in Lu trademiento (The treachery).

Three songs by Verdi were of rich variety – the downtrodden Il poveretto (The poor man) led to the rather moving Il tramonto (Twilight) before Fisher and Matthewman cast all cares aside for Brindisi (A toast). Sporting a different musical response to the famous aria of the same name from La Traviata, this was a riotous celebration of wine.

The songs of Tosti are highly respected but still quite rare in concert hall recitals, so it was good to hear a consummate master of the form at work in ‘A vucchella (A sweet mouth) and Sogno (Dream), passionately sung.

The concert’s second part told the story of Hahn’s Venezia, where Matthewman painted the watery settings of the opening song Sopra l’acqua indormenzada (Upon the sleeping waters), the undulations of La barcheta (The little boat) and the heady atmosphere of La biondina in gondoleta (The fair maiden in a gondoleta). Fisher was a very entertaining guide to the ups and downs of love in Venice for the subject, no more so than in Che peca! (What a shame!) where he had all the requisite mannerisms to cast off his ‘only thought’ Nina, to the amusement of the audience – but perhaps the best was left for last, a celebration of La primavera (The springtime) to round off the cycle in some style.

Fisher’s bright tenor sound was also ideally suited to the encore, Leoncavallo’s Mattinata, which provided further evidence of the strength of his partnership with Matthewman. With such colourful song set under the equally bright roof of the Sheldonian, it was a match to remember.

Further listening

You can hear the repertoire from this concert on the Spotify playlist below. Alessandro Fisher has yet to record any of the Italian songs, so leading alternative versions have been used:

Meanwhile Fisher himself appears in a new recording from Classical Opera and Ian Page of Mozart’s Grabmusik and Bastien Und Bastienne:

The Oxford Lieder Festival – why you should go and see it!

written by Ben Hogwood

Sometimes judging a book by its cover can bring the best possible results. For a few years now the immaculate publicity and tempting programmes of the Oxford Lieder Festival have been beckoning me in – and 2018 was at last the year I travelled to Oxford for the day to experience a day in the company of song enthusiasts.

If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be attending a concert of classical song, let alone travelling for three hours to see a couple, I would have politely asked you to leave the room. Yet thanks to the Wigmore Hall I have gradually come to know and in some cases love the ‘Lieder’ repertoire, all the way through from Mozart to the present day.

I attended the festival on Wednesday, where the focus was on Italy, Russia and the Baltic countries, notably Estonia. As you will read in the following three reviews, to be published on Arcana later today, I could not praise the Oxford Lieder Festival highly enough for its ability to appeal to all concertgoers, regardless of what stage in their audience life they are at. A combination of slick organisation, a relaxed approach to concert going and a clear love of their cause shone through at all times. The performers clearly loved to be there too – in each of the three concerts smiles were frequent, long-lasting and genuine.

The ’fringe’ activities excelled too – the Language Labs, where people can get to know the characteristics of the language they will hear in song later in the day, are invaluable. A talk about The Grand Tour from the Ashmolean Museum’s Matthew Winterbottom was entertaining and informative, throwing the Italian vocal compositions of the time into a fresh context. The integration of restaurants and bars into a mix already containing some striking venues was a great plus too, showing the city of Oxford at its best.

The festival, then, is greater than the sum of its many parts – and there really is something for everyone in the twists and turns of its Grand Journey this year. If you are within striking distance of Oxford, I heartily recommend it.

Wigmore Mondays: Nicholas Daniel & Charles Owen – J.S. Bach, Pavel Haas, York Bowen & Julian Anderson

Nicholas Daniel (oboe, above), Charles Owen (piano, below)

J.S. Bach Sinfonia from Easter Oratorio Kommt, eilet und laufet, BWV249 (1725, rev.1938) (1:33-5:40)
Pavel Haas Oboe Suite Op.17 (1939) (5:42-22:12)
Julian Anderson The Bearded Lady (1994) (24:20-31:33)
Stravinsky Russian Maiden’s Song (arr. for oboe and piano) (32:49-36:24)
York Bowen Oboe Sonata Op.85 (37:02-54:22)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 October 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The common link to the inventive programme for this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Recital was the oboist Leon Goossens, whose instrument Nicholas Daniel still plays. Goossens, who died in 1988, was a legendary artist. Arguably the most influential exponent of the oboe in the 20th century, he helped secure a good deal of modern repertoire for the instrument. He also loved to play arrangements of existing works, such as the Bach movement with which Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen began this concert (from 1:33 on the broadcast link)

This was beautifully phrased and ornamented by Daniel, with exemplary control and beauty of tone, complemented by subtle prompting from Owen. It led without a break into the curious but deeply affecting three-movement Suite from Pavel Haas. The Czech composer’s music is slowly making itself better known after a revival in the 1990s. Prior to then, Haas – along with fellow Jewish composers Erwin Schulhoff, Hans Krása and Gideon Klein, had suffered considerable neglect, due partly to the tragic events of 1941-1942. All were taken to concentration camps during the Second World War, and tragically none returned.

This piece was unpredictable in places, and even confrontational between the instruments, but it left quite an emotional trail, writing directly to the soul in the manner of Haas’s teacher Janáček. Its music contained some of the blunt economy of expression for which his teacher was renowned, but also a slightly more whimsical quality. The first movement Furioso (5:42) began sternly but soon became more introspective, Owen’s considered interpretation bringing characterisation to the twists and turns of the piano part. The second movement, marked Con fuoco (10:08) began with an outburst from the piano, which was then calmed a little by the lyrical oboe line – and the two plotted very different paths during the course of the movement, which finished with another impassioned statement from the piano. The final movement Moderato (15:38) was calmer and found greater alignment between the two. A lovely, much more intimate moment from 19:57 led by the oboe but with an evocative loop from the piano, growing to an impressive climax.

For his comedic piece The Bearded Lady, commissioned by Daniel and based on a scene in Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress, Julian Anderson used the extremities of the range of both instruments, the oboe jumping and swooping between high and low pitches, before we heard a tumbling figure down the piano. Then both instruments descended together, and while the piano hammered away at the low register Daniel left the stage. This was all part of the theatre, for soon we heard in the distance the mournful tones of the cor anglais (30:31), The Bearded Lady lamenting her fate at the end of an entertaining piece.

Stravinsky himself followed, an arrangement of the Russian Maiden’s Song from the 1921 comic opera Mavra. This had the classic Stravinsky combination of spiky rhythms but more tender melodic asides, the affecting and slightly humorous melody complemented by spicy harmonies from the piano.

York Bowen is often viewed as an English equivalent to Saint-Saëns or Rachmaninov – which gives a good idea of where his strengths lie. A melodic composer, he also makes quite heavy virtuoso demands on the performer – demands that Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen met head on. They enjoyed the light hearted and sweet first movement, with its winsome melody, presenting it as part of a graceful dance.

The slow movement (44:15), marked Andantino espressivo by the composer, featured a long-breathed melody that Daniel played and phrased beautifully, lightly prompted by Owen. As the music got more intense we heard more of the lower range of Daniel’s oboe, a full-bodied sound, before the melancholy theme reappeared.

The shackles were confidently thrown off for the finale (50:23, marked Allegro giocoso) with a cheeky and memorable theme, which led to some fun sparring between the instruments and a bright signing-off.

As a bonus Daniel brought the recital full circle, returning to a Bach arrangement – on this occasion the Siciliano from the Flute Sonata in E flat major BWV1031. Unfortunately the radio broadcast cut away before this was played – a shame, as they would have had room for it. It certainly capped a very fine recital which showed a much greater depth to the oboe repertoire than one might expect!

Further listening

Nicholas Daniel has not recorded any of the material in this concert, but it can be tracked in this Spotify playlist:

Five years ago Daniel and a number of colleagues released this disc of chamber works by the Scottish Thea Musgrave, who turned 90 this year:

Wigmore Mondays: Catriona Morison & Yuka Beppu in songs by Brahms, Korngold & Mahler

Catriona Morison (mezzo-soprano, above), Yuka Beppu (piano, below)

Brahms Meine Liebe ist grün Op. 63/5 (1873) (2:01-3:27), Alte Liebe Op. 72/1 (c1876) (3:37-6:37), Geheimnis Op. 71/3 (6:48-8:50) (1877), Ständchen Op.106/1 (c1888) (8:54-10:21), Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer Op.105/2 (1886) (10:32-13:30), Dein blaues Auge hält so still Op.59/8 (1873) (13:37-15:20) and Von ewiger Liebe Op.43/1 (1864) (15:25-19:13)
Korngold 5 Lieder Op. 38 (1947) – Glückwunsch (21:35-24:06); Der Kranke (24:11-26:10); Alt-spanisch (26:25-27:44); Alt-englisch (27:49-28:45), Kein Sonnenglanz im Auge (28:46-30:44)
Mahler Rückert Lieder (1901-2) Ich atmet’ einen linden (32:59-35:20) Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (35:24-36:33); Liebst du um Schönheit (36:43-39:12); Um Mitternacht (39:21-45:22); Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (45:35-51:50)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 8 October 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Catriona Morison and Yuka Beppu began their first recital at the Wigmore Hall with a group of seven Brahms songs, drawn mostly from the composer’s forties and fifties. There was an immediate surge of headstrong passion with the music of Meine Liebe est grün (My love’s as green) (2:01 on the broadcast link), with a typically full texture in the piano, but shadows fell in a moving account of Alte Liebe (Old love) (3:37), especially when the music turned back to its original minor key.

Geheimnis (Secret) (6:48) was notable for its pure stillness, while Ständchen (Serenade) (8:54) was restless but enjoyably so. Dein blaues Auge (Your blue eyes) (13:37) was bittersweet, but the most substantial song was left until last. Von ewiger Liebe (Eternal love) (15:25) threw off the shackles to rejoice in the power of its subject matter. Morison was superb here, pacing herself through to the final, glorious ode, showing here and elsewhere an admirable control of the full tones she has at her disposal. Yuka Beppu was a sensitive partner, bringing clarity to Brahms’ more congested part writing.

Morison clearly has a soft spot for the music of Korngold, and enjoyed the characterisations offered by the composer’s 5 Lieder of 1947. In each his melodic gifts and economy of setting are clearly evident, and in Der Kranke (24:11) the piano’s obsession with a nagging phrase, brilliantly handled by Beppu, felt like a recurring ache. Morison enjoyed the contrasting Alt spanisch (26:25) and the brash Alt-englisch (27:49) before the softer tones of Kein Sonnenglanz im Auge (My mistress’ eyes) (45:35)

In the right performance Mahler’s Rückert Lieder can present an unforgettable concert experience, which was exactly the case here. The flowing, outdoorsy Ich atmet einen linden Duft (I breathed a gentle fragrance) (32:59) had the ideal weight and pitch, delighting in its floral subject, while Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (35:24) found the subtle humour comparing the privacy of bees and songwriters! The ‘dying’ phrases of Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty) (36:43) were really well done, turning inwards, Morison’s voice again an instrument of beauty, while the famous Um Mitternacht (39:21) cast its spell through descriptive piano playing and expressive singing in Morison’s gorgeous lower register sound, the song’s pain vividly conveyed. Finally Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world) (45:35) reduced the audience to silence and reflection on how remarkable it was that two young interpreters of this song could bring so much insight.

A deserved encore followed, returning us to Korngold and one of his finest songs, Schneeglöckchen – where Morison charmed throughout.

Further listening

Catriona Morison has not yet recorded the music heard in this concert, but it can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

Meanwhile you can explore the chamber music and songs of Korngold on this double album from Deutsche Grammophon, with the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and friends:

Meanwhile the orchestral versions of the Mahler songs appear on this peerless disc from Dame Janet Baker, one of the all time classics of the vocal classical repertoire:

Wigmore Mondays: Chiaroscuro Quartet play Haydn & Schubert

Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova, Pablo Hernán Benedí (violins), Emilie Hörnlund (viola), Claire Thirion (cello)

Haydn String Quartet in E flat major Op.33/2 ‘Joke’ (1781) (1:43
Schubert String Quartet in A minor D804 ‘Rosamunde’ (1824) (21:32-54:10)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 1 October 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This concert was due to be headed by clarinetist Annelien Van Hauwe, but sadly due to personal circumstances she was not able to join the Chiaruoscuro Quartet for Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Instead the quartet provided an autumnal work from their repertoire, Schubert’s String Quartet in A minor. This is known as the Rosamunde, for its slow movement contains a tune from the incidental music Schubert wrote to the play.

First, however, we had one of Haydn’s great early quartets. The composer already had two substantial sets of six quartets under his belt, published as Op.17 and Op.20 (the Sun quartets), and continued his expansion of the string quartet as the primary form of chamber music with six more, published as Op.33 in 1781. The second of these was subtitled The Joke, with a punchline making itself clear in the last movement.

Before that came an enjoyable first movement Allegro moderato (from 1:43 on the broadcast). This was a little bit sinewy in the sound initially, but it was played with a nice air and a hint of the humour that was to flourish later on. The perky second movement (7:02) found a slightly more detached approach from Ibragimova, but was given a sprightly step. By contrast the slow movement (10:21) felt very down at hand initially, with lean bow strokes from the players, with quite a savage intervention halfway through.

Perhaps this was to emphasise the humour of the skittish finale, beginning at 15:27. The tune is a fun one and was played as such, especially when the false endings began at 18:25 – after which point the audience enjoyed second guessing when the piece would actually finish. Haydn – even now – would have been smiling.

The Schubert (beginning at 21:32) enjoyed moments of great beauty in a performance stressing the softer nature of his quartet writing. With a very quiet start, the first movement developed into an engaging and often imposing argument as the main theme was modified and passed around – before returning, still in sombre mood, at 29:50.

The Rosamunde movement, starting at 34:01, was quite plaintive to start with but like the first movement grew in stature, its lyricism also more evident. The Scherzo was much darker, its shadowy outlines from 40:54 lightly sketched by the cello. The fragility of this music found shafts of light from its accompanying Trio section, with just a couple of squeaks in the upper register from the violin, before the scherzo material itself returned at 45:20.

The finale had a forthright, martial character (from 47:29) and found the firm resolution that the other movements had noticeably held back on – completing a thought provoking and carefully thought out performance from a very fine quartet.

Further listening

The music heard in this concert, including the Chiaroscuro’s recording of the Schubert, can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

The Chiaroscuro have recorded Haydn’s set of six quartets Op.20, which appear in the two album links below, showing off the early innovations made by the composer in the form. Entertaining, too!

For more information on the Chiaroscuro Quartet, head to their website