Unanimity of Purpose in Grand Finale of Oxford’s Schumann Project



Oxford Lieder Festival – The Schumann Project: Robert Schumann:  Ailish Tynan (soprano), Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor), Jacques Imbrailo (baritone), Sholto Kynoch and Bengt Forsberg (piano), St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford 29.10.2016. (CR)

Robert Schumann: Minnespiel, Op.101; Bilder aus Osten for piano duet, Op.66 (selection); Spanische Liebeslieder, Op.138; Bei Schenkung eines Flügels, WoO26 No.4

For its closing recital, the Oxford Lieder Festival brought together a whole quartet of soloists to perform two late song cycles by Schumann, rounding off this year’s complete overview of the composer’s output of lieder. The various items in the two cycles were passed around the soloists, with some pieces themselves for more than one of them, and so a notable diversity of textures and emotions were traversed.

James Gilchrist stood out for the earnestness and urgency of his singing, in ‘Meine Töne still und heiter’, the duet with Ailish Tynan ‘Die tausend Grüsse’ from the Minnespiel, and the sense of expectation and joy in ‘O wie lieblich ist das Mädchen’ from the Spanische Liebeslieder collection. ‘Mein schöner Stern’ from the former cycle was a little strained, however, and it was disappointing that it was not more gently undulating, though Sholto Kynoch’s steady piano accompaniment conjured up the song’s rapt nocturnal atmosphere. Tynan displayed a bright and well-rounded, even shrill, vibrato in the ardour of her singing, though often it still seemed that something held back the tone of her voice in terms of a more open, sparkling radiance. Nevertheless her interpretation of the opening song of the Spanische Liebeslieder was poignantly focused, and she was able to project clearly over the denser texture of the items for full quartet, particular in the final song of that cycle.

Kitty Whately took a more restrained part in both her solo and ensemble numbers, though by no means to the detriment of their musical sense, as evidenced in the wit of ‘Hoch, hoch sind die Berge’ from the Spanish songs. The momentum she sustained through the almost continuous vocal line setting the seven verses of ‘O Freund, mein Schirm, mein Schutz’ from Minnespiel was impressive as it mounted in desperation towards the middle of the song and sought resolution at the end; similarly with the passion expressed in the duet ‘Bedeckt mich mit Blumen’ with Tynan. Although at the bottom of the pile in terms of tessitura, Jacques Imbrailo sang with an enchanting lyricism, which provided a sonorous foundation to cushion the higher voices as in the duet ‘Ich bin dein Baum’ from Minnespiel, or with Gilchrist in that cycle’s quartet ‘So wahr die Sonne scheinet’ where all four voices were integrated with an appropriate glow. By himself Imbrailo evinced a jazzy smokiness of tone in ‘Flutenreicher Ebro’ where he sounded more like a tenor.

Despite their variety of styles, the four singers cohered together well, singing with unanimity of purpose in the tussle of the musical parts and interacting with the piano. That was particularly the case with the ebullient piano accompaniment to ‘Schön ist das Fest des Lenzes’, garlanding the more solid vocal texture from the singers.

Kynoch was a consistently sensitive accompanist, providing well characterised, but not overbearing support. Only in ‘O wie lieblich ist das Mädchen’ did it seem too serious, but otherwise there was some enticing and telling detail in his performances which brought out the mood of each song. To cite two examples not already given, the delicate, lilting profile of the accompaniment for ‘Flutenreicher Ebro’ depicted the river Ebro’s flow, and the twinkling notes high up in the keyboard’s register vividly conveyed the mountainous landscape of ‘Hoch, hoch sind die Berge’ and the poet’s eagerness to call back her lover from the path through that.

Bengt Forsberg joined Kynoch for the selection of four pieces from the Bilder aus Osten. At the lower end of the piano, Forsberg brought out some warm textures, which worked well in the hymn-like last piece, marked ‘Reuig, andächtig’. But at other times that support was more plodding and undermined a more natural flow in the music, as in the first item (‘Lebhaft’) and the second which was not as ‘gesangvoll’ as it could have been. The piano duet accompaniment for the Spanische Liebeslieder was better integrated, giving way to the singers.

To round off the festival, Kynoch and all four singers came together for a charming rendition of one of Schumann’s last compositions, a short song setting his own words ‘Bei Schenkung eines Flügel’, on the gift of a grand piano. Next year’s festival will look ahead to the end of the Romantic age by placing Mahler in the context of fin-de-siècle Vienna.

Curtis Rogers

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 31 October at 7.30pm. Between 1 and 4 November three other recitals from the festival will also be broadcast for the station’s lunchtime series. All will be available in BBC iPlayer for 30 days after broadcast.

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