In concert – Oxford Lieder Festival celebrates Stenhammar with Camilla Tilling, Agnes Auer, Martin Sturfält, Lotte Betts-Dean, the Stenhammar Quartet and Sholto Kynoch

Various venues in Oxford, Sunday 10 October. Artists as listed below

Written by Ben Hogwood from online streams

“There is no better way to get to know Stenhammar than the songs”, says pianist and scholar of the composer Martin Sturfält. With around half of the composer’s output delivered on this third day of the Oxford Lieder Festival, it was the ideal opportunity to get to know the Swedish composer, 150 years on from his birth. Arcana dipped its toe in four of the online events.

Celebrating Stenhammar, placed second in the substantial quintet of concerts, seemed the best place when approaching this series online. Taking the form of a seminar with musical examples, it doubled as the ideal introduction to the composer and an extremely useful and interesting top-up for those with working knowledge.

Beginning, naturally, with two songs, we were able to enjoy the clear voice of soprano Agnes Auer, giving with Sturfält a radiant account of I Skogen (In The Forest), which they countered with the distracted Adagio.

A panel of Sturfält, Daniel Grimley and Leah Broad then proceeded to give valuable historical context to Stenhammar’s work, brimming over with enthusiasm for the increased exposure his music has enjoyed of late. Broad explained the composer’s continued resolve to compose accessible tonal music in the wave of modernism sweeping Europe, renouncing Schoenberg and Strauss but striking out instead for a clarity of expression. This could be seen in helpful parallels drawn with Swedish art and politics of the time.

Auer illustrated why the fuss is justified, with a special account of Klockan (The Bell), one of Stenhammar’s finest songs stopping time as she sang. Later on Lutad Mot Gärdet (Leaning On The Fence) was a lovely illustration of how the composer’s relative simplicity could fuel profound feelings, especially through the clear tones of this singer.

In between Sturfält played the rather lovely Sensommarnätter (Late Summer Nights) Op.33. This suite captured both the clear light and furtive movements of nature at that time of year, but also found a metaphor for the late summer of life. Though written in 1914 the suite had been in Stenhammar’s mind for some time, and the performance here caught the essence of the five pieces, a tantalising combination of certainty amid darker thoughts and feelings.

Before this the day had begun with a broader celebration of Nordic song, in the company of young artists – soprano Siân Dicker, tenor Alessandro Fisher, mezzo Lotte Betts-Dean and pianist Keval Shah, who proved an excellent guide. As he said, nature provided the drama itself – and these examples, from contemporaries of Stenhammar, brought little-known names to the surface in illustration of the depth of songwriting talent in the Nordic countries in the 20th century.

Adolf Fredrik Lindblad’s Höstkvällen made a strong impact through Betts-Dean, as did Kuula’s slightly troubled Syystunnelma and a slightly playful Serenad from Erik Bergman. Here, Fisher and Shah portrayed the falling leaves with little flourishes. Betts-Dean also caught the unpredictable directions of Grieg‘s Autumn Songs. Definitely a song of two halves, it held the realisation that summer is over and winter is making a play for our affections. Meanwhile the remarkable Sibelius song Norden pushed Dicker’s voice to its limit, successfully, and she also shone in Merikanto and Madetoja.

The third concert, subtitled A Swedish Sensation, featured the Stenhammar String Quartet in a tense Elegy and brisk Intermezzo from Lodolezzi sjunger (Lodolezzi sings). Then they were joined by Lotte Betts-Dean for a fascinating set of five songs from Henri Marteau. The viola crept upwards before a portrayal of how the ‘quiet drops fall to earth from the clouds’ was brilliant in Thränentropfen, while the exultant In dem Garten meiner Seele found the ‘magic voice of a violin’ from first violinist Peter Olofsson at the end. Betts Dean set a very high standard, with wonderful tone and full voice in Sonnenlied, pushing to her upper range with impressive poise and power.

The quartet then proceeded to give a fluent account of their namesake’s String Quartet no.4, showing its ready inspiration in a first movement that delighted in a good many tunes, the instruments engaged in confident dialogue. The influence of Mendelssohn could be found in this busy activity, but the richly coloured Adagio made a more lasting mark, Olofsson’s passionate solo floating above the waves created by the other three instruments. There was a busy scherzo with a particularly bright fugal episode, high on energy, before touches of humour imbued the finale with positive spirits. Again, the dialogue between the four was intimate and entertaining.

The fourth concert, given in a starry Saint John the Evangelist church, included a complete performance of Stenhammar’s cycle Songs and Moods. The object of this concert was to show off Stenhammar’s talents to the full in the company of the best possible artists for the task. Agnes Auer returned, while Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling and baritone Jakob Högström gave fully idiomatic performances, all paired with festival director Sholto Kynoch, who had somehow found the time to rehearse the challenging piano parts!

The route to Stenhammar came by the way of Lindblad, Rangström, Nordqvist, Alfvén, Linde and Peterson-Berger, and was again illuminating in its selections. The darker shades of Ture Rangström’s Pan received a nice, airy delivery from Tilling, while Alfven’s Saa tag mit Hjerte was the most affecting song so far with its simple yet searching message and melody. Bo Linde’s Äppelträd och päronträd (The apple tree and the pear tree) sprang forward with renewed energy, while Peterson-Berger set a mood of longing with När jag för mig själv, and the poignant lyric “I think of a friend whom I will never find”.

After six very fine songs from Stenhammar himself – Ingalill Op.16/3 testing the upper range of Tilling and Fylgia Op.16/4 clinging urgently to its subject – we heard Högström in Songs and Moods Op.26. This fulsome baritone was beautifully projected, supported by a crystal clear piano part. There was a sharply rendered portrait of the butterfly orchid that stood out, then a staccato Miss Blonde & Miss Brunette which proved the most substantial song. Kynoch was certainly kept very busy! To the land of bliss was brilliantly judged, tripping along like a slightly tipsy dance, while Prins Aladdin af Lampan, with several twists and turns, wrought its way to a powerful climax.

Tilling returned for more of the composer’s single songs, with Vid fönstret Op.20 offering poignant words on ageing, then Månsken (Op. 20/4) a clear portrayal of the forest. For an encore, soprano and baritone linked in Swedish.

This was an absolutely fascinating day, too much to take in one sitting but consistently revealing when watched back on the different streaming sites. Great credit should go to the video production team, for the songs were expertly filmed, but also to the panelists and performers for clearly relishing their chance to show their respect for one of Sweden’s best-loved composers. This day will surely have won Wilhelm Stenhammar many new friends.

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

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

Talking Heads: Christian Gerhaher


Interview with Ben Hogwood

Arcana is fortunate indeed to have the opportunity to talk with Christian Gerhaher. The German baritone has been singing in Salzburg with friends when we speak. It is the morning after, and in spite of a gruelling concert including major song cycles by Berlioz and Schoeck, he sounds invigorated on the other end of the telephone. “It was a very difficult program, but with some fantastic works”, he enthuses. “We did a new string sextet version of the Berlioz cycle Les nuits d’été, arranged by David Matthews, which was really wonderful. I was performing with the best musicians imaginable – Isabelle Faust, Anna Katharina Schreiber, Danusha Waskiewicz, Antoine Tamestit, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Christian Poltéra.

The composer bringing us together for this conversation, however, is Robert Schumann. Together with his long-term musical partner, pianist Gerold Huber, Gerhaher has completed a mammoth project recording the composer’s songs (or ‘Lieder’) for voice and piano. The result is an 11-CD set released this month by Sony Classical, the culmination of many years’ hard work and dedication. Christian receives my congratulations on the pair’s achievement with characteristic warmth. “Thank you very much. Yesterday I got the box, and it was touching because we have worked for such a long time, and so intensely, to achieve this!”

Gerhaher is an engaging interviewee, generous with his answers. We begin by casting his mind back to see if he can recall his very first encounter with the Lieder of Schumann? “Yes – it was a recital by the baritone Hermann Prey. He was performing Dichterliebe, and the Kerner songs. I was especially touched by Dichterliebe, which was a kind of upbeat for my work with Gerold in the Lieder repertoire.”

What was it about the composer’s music that drew him in? “Schumann is very well known now, with titles like Dichterliebe or the Eichendorff cycle, the Heine cycle Liederkreis Op.24, and the Kerner songs, maybe Myrthen, the Op.25”, he recounts, “but I discovered that there are so many songs, 299 in all! I got so completely involved in Schumann singing. I was always addicted to his piano music when I was young, but then I found out that every song, when Gerold and I did them for the first time, was amazing and so full of possible meaning. It would have been so sad to leave these songs undiscovered. We make our repertoire bigger and bigger, if possible, but then came this opportunity of recording, and we thought it was the perfect way to get to know Schumann as well as possible. I must say apart from one or two songs I love them all. I can’t say there is one weak song. In the first ‘Liederjahr’ (Schumann’s first ‘Year of Song’) in 1840, where he happened to deliver 140 masterworks from nothing, there is no song there that is boring, bad or strange. It’s just incredible what a pianist like him could deliver out of no development, from the beginning it was perfect. The 1850 songs are the same. It’s amazing.”

His wonder at Schumann is only enhanced by these lesser-known songs, and our conversation alights on the set of six Gesänge published as Op.107, an intimate and emotional set. “They are”, he agrees. “What I thought quite early on with Gerold is that there is a cyclic idea behind each of Schumann’s opus numbers. Altogether there are 45 separate lieder opuses. Two of them are complete opuses with one song only (Der Handschuh and Belsatzar) but the rest are cycles. We had a very interesting idea concerning these cycles, which is that the form of each is always different. You have so many different ways of completing a song cycle, in the narrative. You have the Kerner songs, and you have the fantastic wedding gift of Myrthen, which speaks for itself as a song cycle, but there are also cycles which are conceived just for one work. The four books of Myrthen always end with two songs by the same poet, like two people standing together at the end of a book – a loving couple.”

He finds another example. “You also have the Op.83, which is an opus reflecting the number ‘3’. There are three songs, and the last song for example, which is a perfect strophic song, is reflecting the trinity of God. You have the three forms of songs – a strophic strong, a very strophic song, and a through composed song, which is the first one. Then you have the number three in people – a loving couple who decide to have a child in the middle of no.2. These go on and on, it is astonishing.”

Gerhaher’s partnership with Gerold Huber (above) exists on wholly equal terms. “Certainly, it is never a case of piano accompaniment. Gerold is a ‘Lied pianist’, not an accompanist. For me it is one of the major achievements of my life, like having a wife that I love, to have Gerold as my best friend. We have been working together for 33 years now!”

It must have been special for the two embarking on this particular voyage of discovery together. “Yes. It was demanding, though,” he says with understatement, “and you have to decide which songs you would add to the recording and those where you think do not match what you were expecting to record. When we had to choose other singers to do the work you can’t do yourself it was really a big mountain to climb, but it was one of the major achievements of my life.”

The guest singers tend to appear on the songs where more than one vocalist is required, or where the range goes beyond that of a baritone. How were they chosen? “By sympathy and by professional admiration,” he says, “but what I like very much is not to choose singers for a quartet or trio that have very similar voices. That is a very important thing to think about, getting the ensemble right. I like to have very different voices, like a light tenor or a soprano, and an alto which is darker. Having different voices is very important in an ensemble because the identity of a voice and person with a sung role is important, to keep this identity as strong as possible. It vanishes in comparison with a solo song, but I did not want a perfect unity in the quartet songs.”

When preparing their interpretations, Gerhaher was mindful of the lives of the poets whose text Schumann was setting. “Yes, certainly”, he says warmly. “How could I not be? Some of the poets are quite unknown, so it was a curiosity that led to nothing because the information did not always give me any advantage. The other thing is that Schumann as an artist didn’t, in my eyes, try to perfectly match the possible meaning of the text he was putting into music. That means he never tries to understand a poem entirely, in the way of noting down the certain meaning. I understand literary lyricism as an open field of thoughts and associations which are not strictly written. There are many possible meanings coming together and not being nailed down with a solution. This is what Schumann does, and he even adds something to the lyricism by obliterating some possible meanings, or bending the meaning of a poem to make it more complicated than it is. He does this not only by putting a poem into music but sometimes by combining poems into his cycles, as combinations which have no relation to each other.”

He gives an example. “In the Op.96 the second song, called Schneeglöckchen, is about one of the first flowers coming out after winter. They are tiny, white flowers, with a small green line on the end of the blossoms. The song is about a winter storm coming in and saying to the Schneeglöckchen, ‘Look, you have to vanish – the storm is coming, and you can’t survive here. The song says, you have such a strange uniform, white with this green strip. The poet is anonymous, and you don’t really know what the whole song is about – it’s a total mystery.” He has a solution. “It’s not about springtime, or the end of winter, but I thought about the colours of the flower in uniforms of old soldiers. I found one uniform of a Hanover group of soldiers, fighting alongside England in the seven-year war of the 1750s. There was one battle in the East of Germany where the Austrians were pushing them away from south to north. They had to flee, and I assume there was a soldier, one of them wounded, and they told him ‘Come with us, we can’t stay here’. He couldn’t, because he was wounded, and was like this strange Schneeglöckchen which couldn’t flee to the north. Why should a Schneeglöckchen flee to the north? If anything it should flee to the south. It’s so complicated, so strange, and so full of mystery and even nonsense. This is what I love with Schumann’s songs and understanding of poetry. He doesn’t deliver a solution – he makes it complicated.”

Gerhaher is a compelling speaker. With Schumann’s music so wholly absorbed in his own consciousness, does he think the approach he described appeals to audiences? “Yes, though you can’t always explain the complications by words, or even explain the meaning. You just show them how complicated music, art and poetry is. There’s nothing to be understood easily in coming to one meaning, like in opera maybe. It’s not a concrete art, it is more abstract.”

He trained with one of the greatest Lieder singers of them all, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This great German baritone recorded much of Schumann’s Lieder output for Deutsche Grammophon, though Gerhaher did not spend too much time listening to his mentor’s interpretations. “Certainly I had some different ideas. He was on one hand my hero, but our purpose was different. The cyclic intention of Schumann is what we think is important to us. Dietrich was taking songs out of opuses that he thought he could sing well, and others he neglected, which is against the cyclic idea. On the other hand, we don’t want to give the impression that we are right, it’s just our idea of how to perform them.”

He cites another set of the complete songs, curated by Graham Johnson for Hyperion. “He did the entire songs, but he was choosing different singers for song cycles. For my eyes I would rather cast them with one singer to keep the identity of thought. We have our own ideas, and I think they are important to ourselves, not to the truth as such.”

As they recorded more of Schumann’s work, how did their feelings towards the composer develop – and in particular the struggles he experienced with his mental health? “Schumann was always in my eyes a perfect artist, or the image of an artist. An idea which I got later on is that you have these two different groups of songs – the songs with one person singing, and the songs with different people singing. I think the illusion of a voice representing the lyrical ego of singing a song, which is an illusion of a story going on, on a stage, that is easily understood by everyone as an illusion, this disappears immediately when several people are singing together. The singularity of one fabric is vanishing, so you have two different possibilities of song. You have the songs I recorded and sing for one person, which are in Schumann’s case representing his world of emotion, his difficult world of depression where he was getting sicker and sicker. The other world, with these many people singing together, has a very special sweetness sometimes – you could say it’s on the border of being kitschy. This made me think of Schumann conceiving these song cycles as a perfect and unproblematic world which he doesn’t live in, but which he wishes for himself. It’s two layers of life, very differently handled by him. This is my idea, I can’t prove it!”

In Christian’s view, what are the qualities required to be a successful Schumann singer? “I would say everyone can do it as they want, as they feel. Certainly for me, being a good singer with my own purposes would mean to have a lot of colour. This is the advantage of singing alone as opposed to other people at the same time. The other thing is the pronunciation of the German language in Schumann songs is especially important. I would say all these layers of colour add to the occasion, to the author as a kind of painting with many colours. You can only deliver them if the pronunciation, as a first instance of colourisation, is done in a perfect way. That means the pronunciation and the understanding of sung words in German is very much depending on the right vowel.”

Finally, as Gerhaher moves towards his next interview, what are his favourite instrumental pieces by our chosen composer? “I admire EVERYTHING by Schumann,” he says warmly, “but there are some pieces without which I can’t imagine a meaningful life: Szenen aus Goethes Faust, the Violin Concerto, and of course the piano works. I think especially of the Symphonische Etüden, Kinderszenen, Waldszenen, Intermezzi, 7 Clavierstücke in Fughettenform, Gesänge der Frühe, and the Geistervariationen.” With that he moves on – leaving us with a remarkable legacy of Lieder recordings to enjoy.

Alle Lieder, the box set of Schumann’s complete songs, is out now on Sony Classical – and you can listen to any of the 299 songs on Spotify here:

You can also watch Christian Gerhaher singing his Salzburg program of Berlioz and Schoeck in this concert stream from the Wigmore Hall in London, which also includes a performance of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht:

On record: Wooden Elephant: Landscapes, Knives & Glue – Radiohead’s Kid A Recycled


Wooden Elephant [Aiofe Ní Bhriain, Hulda Jónsdóttir (violins), Ian Anderson (viola, arrangements), Stefan Hadjiev (cello), Nikolai Matthews (double bass)

Backlash Music [59’29”]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The quintet Wooden Elephant releases its take on Radiohead’s seminal album Kid A, second in its reworking of game-changing albums that commenced in 2016 with Björk’s Homogenic then continued in 2018 with Beyoncé’s Lemonade, on the enterprising Backlash Music label.

What’s the music like?

When it appeared in autumn 2000, Kid A not only redefined what even as forward-thinking a rock band as Radiohead was capable of, but also topped the mainstream charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus, an album as artistically radical as it is commercially successful such as violist Ian Anderson has made it his mission to reassess. Each of the musicians plays a range of sundry instruments (what improviser Jamie Muir would have deemed ‘allsorts’), yet they are extensions to the already inclusive string sound on which these ‘arrangements’ are based.

After the gradual merging into focus then rhythmic and melodic clarifying of Everything in Its Right Place, the subdued moodiness of Kid A is afforded a ruminative treatment which reveals an unsuspected poise in the melodic line and whimsical twist to the accompaniment. The rhythmic obsessiveness of The National Anthem gives rise to an invigorating textural workout that spills over into mayhem towards the close (who needs an orchestra?) – and to which the video’s Jarmusch-like interplay of drink-stirrers with woodland inhabitants offers an intriguing complement. A siren-song reverb from wine glasses then segues into How to Disappear Completely whose brooding eloquence and lilting gait make it a highlight now as then, while Treefingers is no less arresting given its ethereal emergence and timbral finesse.

The propulsive syncopation of Optimistic effects a vibrant and soulful – if, in this context, relatively straightforward – response, with the hymnic preamble then stealthy integrating of rhythmic and melodic elements across the course of In Limbo satisfying in its immediacy. Nor is there anything predictable about Idioteque with its plaintive unfolding set against a pulsating undertow that drives towards a febrile close, out of which the lucid melodic profile of Morning Bell is maintained from its tentative arrival to its sudden disintegration. It duly remains for the aching pathos of Motion Picture Soundtrack to provide a heartfelt ending; here with its (unintended?) postlude, which is often tracked as Untitled on digital versions of the original album, serenely dissolving into a melange of ricocheting chordal patterns.

Does it all work?

Almost always. Something that was never quite a rock album has provided ideal material for an ensemble that is not quite a string quintet, Wooden Elephant taking full advantage of this stretching of musical and conceptual boundaries to come up with what is an absorbing listen in its own right. Just occasionally the ensemble’s interplay evokes those bluesy harmonies of Quintette de Hot Club de France, but this serves to throw the more experimental aspects of its approach into provocative relief. Nor does the vividly defined sound leave anything to chance.

Is it recommended?

It is. This is an ideal opportunity to reconsider a key album from the turn of the Millennium, finely interpreted by a sympathetic and resourceful ensemble. Wooden Elephant is giving a performance in Potsdam this November, with hopefully further hearings to follow in the UK.



Further information

For more on Wooden Elephant, click here, and for more on Backlash Music, click here

On record: Stephen Wilkinson – A Celebration of Conductor and Composer (Prima Facie)


William Byrd Singers, *BBC Northern Singers / Stephen Wilkinson

Dickinson Late Afternoon in November (1975)*

Ellis Sequentia in tempore Natali Sancti (1965)

McCabe Siberia; Visions (both 1983).

Traditional (arr. Wilkinson) Four Choruses from Grass Roots (2003); Betjeman’s Bells (2012)

Wilkinson That Time of Year (1976)

Prima Facie PFCD147 [60’55”] English texts included

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The always enterprising label Prima Facie releases an album to celebrate the centenary of the conductor and composer Stephen Wilkinson (b1919), whose many decades of work with both the BBC Northern Singers and the William Byrd Choir is appropriately commemorated here.

What’s the music like?

The selection begins with Peter Dickinson’s Late Afternoon in November, a setting of a poem he himself wrote and one whose distanced, often desolate imagery inspires music in which the underlying slowness of pulse and stark emphasis placed on certain words or phrases yields an anguished tone rare in the composer’s output. This performance by the BBC Northern Singers was indeed the world premiere and emphasizes Wilkinson’s assured direction of a demanding piece, the commitment in whose realization hardly something that could be taken for granted.

The remainder is sung by the William Byrd Singers, of whom Wilkinson was the director for almost 40 years. It duly makes the most of Visions, John McCabe‘s elaborate and often eight-part setting of a poem by James Clarence Mangan whose ranging across mellifluous vocalise and visceral chant is conveyed accurately and with not a little sensitivity. If that of the same poet’s Siberia encourages a more direct and (understandably) plangent response, the overall textural variety in this four-part chorus is felicitously judged throughout what is another responsive reading.

For many years a senior producer for BBC Radio in Manchester, David Ellis is also a notable composer, witness his resourceful and often imaginative response to the traditional sequence for Christmas time Sequentia in tempore Natali Sancti. In its astute alternation between full choir and solo voices, it makes for an admirable foil to the straightforward approach adopted by Wilkinson in That Time of Year – a setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXXIII that enfolds its autumnal musings within a sound-world that is monochrome while luminous in character.

The programme is interspersed with Wilkinson’s arrangements of four folksongs taken from his collection Grass Roots – being Welsh, English, Irish and Scottish respectively. Thus, the ruminative As I walked out is followed by the gentle eloquence of Rowing down the Tide, the winsome melancholy of The Lark in the Clear Air, before the steadily accumulating vivacity of The Piper o’ Dundee. Also included here is the charming Betjeman’s Bells, three settings of texts by the Poet Laureate whose music was ingeniously derived from traditional sources.

Does it all work?

As an overall sequence, very much so. While none of these pieces makes use of the extended techniques encountered in much post-war choral music, they are rarely easy technically and the care in preparing these performances (including several world premieres) is evident from every bar. A pity that full recording details have not been included, though the quality of the remastering means that few, if any, allowances need be made for presumed older recordings. The booklet notes place each of these pieces within a meaningful as well as relevant context.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. That Wilkinson is still active as composer, and reader for his daughter’s early-music ensemble Courtiers of Grace, is itself gratifying. This archival release goes much of the way towards explaining why his presence on the English choral scene has been a beneficent one.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Prima Facie Records website, and for more on Stephen Wilkinson click here