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

Wigmore Mondays – Alessandro Fisher & Roger Vignoles: Nordic Tales

Alessandro Fischer (tenor, above), Roger Vignoles (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 16 March 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

With the Coronavirus pandemic now sadly in full swing, this was the last concert at the Wigmore Hall for some time, the venue now on an enforced break until mid-April at the earliest. It served as a reminder of just how lucky we are to be able to experience live music, and how good it is to have concerts such as this preserved on the radio.

This particular concert was a fascinating program of Nordic tales through the eyes of four composers of different nationality. BBC New Generation Artist Alessandro Fisher and the superb, ever-attentive Roger Vignoles cleverly constructed a program focusing on Scandinavia. Yet we saw it not just through the eyes of one of its favourite musical sons (Grieg) but through three others with strong connections – Robert Schumann (Germany), Frederick Delius (England) and Gunnar de Frumerie (Sweden).

Schumann’s 5 Lieder date from 1840, his famed year of song, and came about from his admiration of Hans Christian Andersen’s ability to blend the childlike and the grotesque in his stories. Each of the five songs behaves in a similar way musically. Märzveilchen (The March Violets) (2:32), are aptly timed here, with an appropriately breezy and outdoor air, Fisher’s clear voice adding to the sunny countenance. In Muttertraum (A mother’s dream) (4:10) a shadow falls over the music, drawing longer as the tenor describes the ominous appearance of a raven, all to the accompaniment of a beautifully shaped single line from Vignoles (below).

For Der Soldat (The soldier) (6:56) the muffled drum is vividly described by Schumann – and Vignoles – and Fisher’s voice takes on a declamatory form but reaches stunned silence at the end, when he realises he has killed his man. In Der Spielmann (The fiddler) (9:55), Fisher’s ringing voice tells of celebration but also an untimely death, before the final Verratene Liebe (Betrayed Love) (13:14) This brief song stays in genial mood despite its subject matter.

You can learn a lot about a composer’s output from their songs, and in the case of Grieg his songs reveal the work of a skilled tunesmith and an effortless ability to set a scene in next to no time. The songs here tell of those skills, and Fisher clearly loved performing them. He begins with two early works, the affectionate To brune Øjne (Two brown eyes) (15:50) and yearning Jeg elsker dig (I love you) (16:55).

Grieg’s depiction of En svane (The swan) is held in magical suspension by both Fisher and Vignoles (19:51), its serene progress leading to the flowing song Med en vandlilje (With a waterlily) (22:26). Prinsessen (24:55) has particularly special pleading from Fisher here, the prince’s entreaties to his beloved falling on deaf ears, while Fra Monte Pincio (28:02) has an urgent delivery, thinking of good times ahead.

To Delius, who visited Norway for a number of epic walks across the country, and whose relationship with the country remained close. He was good friends with Grieg, too, so it is perhaps inevitable they should both share common ground as excellent songwriters. The selection here begins with Twilight Fancies (34:40), Roger Vignoles shading the picture with distant horn fanfares and Fisher judging his vibrato ideally. The song sets a translation of the text used by Grieg in Prinsessen, and the different responses of the composers are fascinating in comparison.

Young Venevil (38:32) strains at the leash, impetuous but ultimately unlucky in love. The Nightingale (40:35) is airy and atmospheric, its chromatic movement nicely managed, while Longing (43:24) brings with it a surge of feeling through the flowing piano and Fisher’s ringing tone.

The music of Gunnar de Frumerie is seldom heard, but he is highly regarded among 20th century Swedish composers. The Songs of the Heart cycle features deeply intimate music, its subject matter woven into natural allegory. The six songs begin with the contemplative, almost rapturous When You Close My Eyes (47:58), then the pure You Make Everything Beautiful (50:10), which feels whiter than white. Blessed It Is To Wait (52:36) carries a feeling of impatience despite its title, before the profound From The Depths Of My Soul (54:16). You Are My Aphrodite (57:05) surges forward with great passion and intensity, Fisher’s effectively surfing the turbulent waves of the accompaniment. Finally Like A Wave (58:24) carries a Debussy-like humidity, sultry and ardent.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Schumann 5 Lieder Op.40 (1840)
Grieg To brune Øjne Op.5/1, Jeg elsker dig Op.5/3 (1864), En svane Op.25/2, Med en vandlilje Op.25/4 (1876), Prinsessen (1871), Fra Monte Pincio Op.39/1 (1869-84)
Delius From Seven Songs from the Norwegian (1889-90): Twilight Fancies (34:40); Young Venevil (38:32); From Five Songs from the Norwegian (1888): The Nightingale (40:35); Longing (43:24)
de Frumerie Hjärtats sånger (Songs of the Heart) Op.27 (1942, rev. 1976) (47:58)

As an encore, once the Radio 3 microphones had departed, Fisher and Vignoles gave a brilliantly rendered account of Ian VenablesFlying Crooked, a comical but rather accurate portrayal of the flight of a butterfly, in this case a Cabbage White.

Further listening & viewing

Alessandro Fisher has not yet recorded the music given in this concert, but each song is included on the playlist below, in leading versions that include Anne Sofie von Otter’s account of Songs of the Heart:

Grieg’s songs are particularly worthy of further exploration, and these recordings from soprano Claire Booth and pianist Christopher Glynn are a great introduction to his craft:

von Otter meanwhile has recorded a disc of Swedish songs which include the works by Gunnar de Frumerie:

Finally Delius and his Norwegian connection, brilliantly explored in this vocal and orchestral collection from Danacord:

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: