Online music recommendations – Oxford Lieder Festival

Over the last few years the Oxford Lieder Festival has established itself as one of the most attractive prospects in the autumn events calendar for classical music. Given the challenges faced by the sector in this most trying of years, it gives great pleasure to report that the team, led by artistic director Sholto Kynoch, have gone above and beyond the call of duty to present this year’s model.

An online extravaganza lasting ten days, the festival continues its penchant for the use of attractive venues in the city, presenting them in an online format with Tall Wall Media which is both easy to navigate and admire.

The artistic standard remains as high as ever, as does the programming. Viewers on Saturday were treated to James Gilchrist immersing himself in ancient lute songs, with the florid tones of Elizabeth Kenny alongside, from where we switched to the Hollywell Music Room. Here we found the redoubtable Dame Sarah Connolly (above) and Eugene Asti in a program including Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben and a rapt account of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, time standing still during the final two songs, a darkly atmospheric Um Mitternacht and an expansive Liebst su um Schönheit.

Many of the Oxford Lieder concerts include a slot for emerging artists, a healthy recognition of the outstanding young talent coming through in the world of song. On this occasion it was bass William Thomas who lent his fulsome tones to a quintet of Schubert songs. We also heard a nicely linked quintet songs from Finzi, Quilter, Haydn and Geoffrey Bush.

The festival has a very healthy instinct for presenting songs in context and giving them the right level of background through guest musicological experts. Natasha Loges illuminated Brahms’ Lieder contributions with music from baritone James Atkinson and pianist Ana Manastireanu while on Saturday 17 October, the festival’s final day, we will get a fascinating chance to explore the song prior to Beethoven in the company of baritone Stephan Loges and Eugene Asti.

On Tuesday 13 October, the lunchtime concert found tenor Robin Tritschler (above) giving a superb hour of music with pianist Graham Johnson from the Hollywell Music Room, journeying round the Zodiac with all the spirit of first-time voyagers. Travelling through works from Barber, Schubert, Ives, Rebecca Clarke and Argento, their ultimate destination was the Songs of the Zodiac of Geoffrey Bush. This inventive cycle provides a setting for each sign, helpfully introduced by Johnson before the two offered vivid characterisation. Here there was plenty of wit but tenderness too.

The following lunchtime tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Anna Tilbrook included a substantial world premiere of a work by Michael Zev Gordon, a composer Gilchrist studied with at King’s College Cambridge in the 1980s. There was a rather nice irony about a work with its genesis in Cambridge receiving its first performance in Oxford, and Gordon’s Baruch – Ten Propositions of Baruch Spinoza showed itself to be an impressive piece indeed.

Fusing elements of chant and more modern, English song – Holst’s great Betelgeuse came to mind in the final Ex hoc tertio cognitionis… – it was a dramatic performance that definitely warrants a further viewing. The cycle started with Gilchrist using a harsher tone but as it unfolded the voice blossomed to fill the space around, helped by the sensitive balance provided by Tilbrook. In the words of Gordon, these were ‘aphorisms meant to be heard and pondered; here sung and pondered’. Gilchrist complemented this with an affectionate and yearning account of a work he has known since childhood, Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte – the first clearly defined song cycle.

Today’s lunchtime concert was rather special with Ian Bostridge (above) joined by pianist Saskia Giogini at Merton College Chapel in a characteristically intense account of Britten’s Canticle I: My Beloved Is Mine. The camera work should be mentioned here, as it captured the glorious chapel in an ideal complement to Britten’s arrangements of Five Spiritual Songs, where Bostridge was masterly, and in the beautiful Bach, the arias Ich habe genug, from the cantata of the same name, and Der Ewigkeit saphirnes Haus (from Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl). Taken on their own, these two – with the Oxford Bach Soloists – reminded us of the true value of live performance, even when given online in these restricted times.

The Oxford Lieder Festival continues until Saturday 17 October, where it will include a performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang from tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Michael Gees. Before then you can enjoy concerts from baritone Benjamin Appl and Sholto Kynoch, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and Simon Lepper and a keenly anticipated collaboration between soprano Lotte Betts-Dean and guitarist Sean Shibe. All concerts are available online until 1 November, or 15 November with the event’s Pioneer Pass – which is much appreciated if you want to catch up with recommended concerts from Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton, not to mention the Hermes Experiment!

For further details visit the festival website

Wigmore Mondays – Phantasm and Elizabeth Kenny play dance music of the 17th century

Phantasm (above), Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo)

Lawes Royal Consort No.10 (c mid-1630s)

Locke Consort of 4 Parts No 5 (c mid-1650s)

Lawes Royall Consort No 5 (c mid-1630s)

Locke The Flatt Consort ‘for my cousin Kemble’ (c mid-1650s)

Lawes Royall Consort No 6 (c mid-1630s)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 22 May, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Want to know what dance music sounded like 400 years ago?

Well the answer to that question – in England at least – lay at the heart of this fascinating lunchtime in the company of Phantasm. The group are a viol consort, a kind of early form of string quartet, playing authentic viols – two trebles, a tenor, and a bass. The trebles are violin equivalents but are played like very small cellos, the instrument held in the lap. The tenor is an elegant looking instrument, around two-thirds the size of a cello and played in the same way, while the bass is essentially an ancestor of the modern cello, without the spike to keep it from slipping. Joining the four was Elizabeth Kenny, playing the distinctive lute relative, the theorbo.

They made a lovely sound in the music of William Lawes and Matthew Locke, two Englishmen of the early to mid-17th century. The contrasting styles were effective – we heard three Royal Consorts from Lawes, intended for the court of Charles I, and two Consorts from Locke. The pieces were built around dance forms, but as the entertaining note from leader Laurence Dreyfus pointed out, this is not music that would have been easy to dance to. Most dance music – in the West at least – is written in units of four, so that us luddites know when to change steps, but Lawes would write in blocks of seven, nine or eleven. The music is attractive and sunny, reflecting the daylight that streamed in through the Wigmore Hall roof.

We began with the Royal Consort no.10 of Lawes (from 4:32 on the broadcast link), an elegant collection of six short dance movements headed by a brightly voiced Pavan, then two each of Allemandes (8:02 and 11:09) and Courantes (9:40 and 12:51) before finishing with an unusually chirpy Saraband (13:57). The Allemande is a dance of German origin, the Courante and Saraband from France.

Then we moved on to Locke’s much more worrisome Consort of 4 Parts no.5 in G minor, abruptly changing mood from unexpectedly bleak to fiery exchanges in the Fantasy movement (16:23), then enjoying a stately Courante (20:22), a thoughtful Air (21:35) and brighter Saraband (23:12), which had a strange, abrupt finish. These were brilliantly characterised by the five players.

Returning to Lawes, we heard the Royal Consort no.5, beginning with pair of Airs at once serene (26:21) and lively (29:30). Then there was a short Allemande (31:06) and a pair of Courantes (32:16 and 33:53) before the highlight, a wonderful echo effect during the rustic Morriss (35:07) and an almost otherworldly Saraband (35:47). All were played with poise and flair, prompted by Elizabeth Kenny’s subtle theorbo playing.

Once more we took a darker turn for Locke’s The Flatt Consort ‘for my cousin Kemble’, so-called because of its minor key. The music, beginning at 38:55, was once again very changeable, moving between slow and fast, quiet and loud. The three contrasting sections with which it ended wore a gruff face (45:21), or a poised, elegant one (45:56), and finally resorted to a driving, brusque tempo from 47:24.

Finally we returned to Lawes for another cheery Royal Consort – no.6 – comprised of an Air (50:22), Allemande (51:55), Courante (53:44) and a brisk, energetic Morriss from 55:40 to finish, Kenny’s theorbo using a distinctive twang.

As an encore the group offered two numbers from the Royall Consort no.4 (58:01 and 59:28), again bright and breezy.

This was a superb concert, given with great enthusiasm, drive and poise, featuring five performers at the top of their game but playing very much as a group, and mastering the quirky tuning of their instruments to make a wonderful sound. I will definitely be catching it again on the iPlayer!

Further listening

You can hear the Lawes suites on the Spotify link below…from where you can access more from the composer.

Locke is more difficult to pin down…but the link below will take you to his dramatic incidental music for The Tempest: