United Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival – Beethoven, Wolf, Loewe, Zelter, Schubert: Fflur Wyn (soprano), Rowan Hellier (mezzo-soprano), Adrian Thompson (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Sholto Kynoch (piano): Holywell Music Room, Oxford 14.10.2013 (CR)
Lieder to texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
Ludwig van Beethoven: Kennst du dasLand, Op 75 No 1
Neue Liebe, Neues Lieben, Op 75 No 2
Aus Goethes Faust, Op 75 No 3
Hugo Wolf: Der Rattenfänger
Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt
Gutmann und Gutweib
Cophtisches Lied I
Cophtisches Lied II
Frech und froh I
Frech und froh II
Carl Loewe: Gesang der Geister über den Wassern
Carl Friedrich Zelter: Um Mitternacht
Franz Schubert: Geheimes, D719
Wandrers Nachtlied II, D768
Wolf: St Nepomuks Vorabend
Der neue Amadis
Gleich und Gleich
Frühling übers Jahr
Dank des Paria
This was the second instalment in the Oxford Lieder Festival’s mini-series featuring songs with texts by Goethe. Whereas the themes of the first recital (on 12th October, also reviewed on Seen and Heard) were generally philosophical and reflective, quite a few of the texts in this second were witty and ironic, or dealt with the less serious aspects of romantic love. The comings and goings of four soloists to sing these was not at all distracting, but rather the changing vocal ranges and characters maintained a sense of occasion and expectation across the recital. Sholto Kynoch reminded the audience at the beginning that Wolf was very particular about the contents and order of his song collections, and so the progression of this recital achieved coherency by following those sequences exactly, and by a judicious selection of other composers’ Goethe settings to complement Wolf’s larger collections.
With a nod back to the earlier Goethe recital, Rowan Hellier opened this one with yet another setting of Mignon’s Kennst du das Land. Ever since Goethe criticised this particular setting by Beethoven for altering the thrust of the poem, there has been debate as to how fitting Beethoven’s setting is, of words purporting to express the yearnings of a thirteen year old girl for her (Italian) homeland. However that may be, Hellier established an ideal directness and seriousness of tone, giving voice to the layers of Mignon’s psychology without making her seem unrealistically grown-up. Hellier observed the nuances of character and narrative progression in the amusing story of Gutmann und Gutweib, whilst in Zelter’s Um Mitternacht both she and Kynoch cultivated a touching simplicity. In other songs however, although her singing was never less than beautiful, she failed to impart quite the same level of nuance and insight to the words and music. In fairness, this facet almost certainly became apparent simply on account of the comparison that could be drawn between her and her more experienced colleagues in this recital; there is no reason to doubt that Hellier has the musical ability to grow in maturity in repertoires such as this.
Fflur Wyn’s first solo appearance in this recital was reserved until the second half. She sang with considerable tenderness and beauty in Schubert’s Wandrers Nachtlied II and Wolf’s St. Nepomuks Vorabend – in the latter her seamless vocal timbre in contrast to the tintinnabulations conjured by Kynoch on the piano – as though from a music box – to evoke the bells referred to in the text. Wyn’s innocent musical quality developed into something more knowing, particularly in the four songs she sang consecutively, Gleich und Gleich, Die Spröde, Die Bekehrte and Frühling übers Jahr. Wyn could have been a touch more delicate in Gleich und Gleich, so as to match the piano accompaniment (and the image of a bee’s daintily sipping the nectar of a spring flower). However, she effected a more impassioned contrast in Die Spröde immediately following, and in the melismatic “So la la!” and “Le ralla!” of that song and Die Bekehrte her character’s growing awareness of the emotional complications of succumbing to love were palpable.
A number of the good-humoured songs were apportioned to Adrian Thompson, who executed them with a suitable, though not deadening, gravity. Certainly this was helped by instilling a sense of excitement and pressing forwards, particularly in wonderment at the pulsing new life that is detected in Beethoven’s Neue Liebe, Neues Leben, or towards the growing sense of catastrophe as the knight in Wolf’s Ritter Kurts Bautfahrt comes to realise that his heroic course through life is obstructed by “opponents, women [and] debts”. Thompson gave a quieter, more wry – even poker-faced – delivery of the two Frech und Froh songs (‘Cheerful Impudence’), which entirely suited the nonchalant swagger of the outlook expressed in the words. There could have been a more inquisitional tone in the opening series of questions in Beherzigung, so that the lesson of the song’s last lines could have come across more authoritatively, but this did little to detract from the splendour and resonance of Thompson’s voice in the upper tenor range.
Given his experience on the stage, it was no surprise that Roderick Williams’s performances were unfailing astute and alive to the mercurial shifts in register and mood within individual songs. For Beethoven’s Aus Goethe’s Faust – the well-known story of a king who elevates his pet flea to minister – Williams adopted a tone of mock solemnity, as though relating a story of serious, ancient folklore, thereby heightening the satire on courtly life. In both of the Cophtische Lieder he assumed just the right level of authority, so as not to seem merely didactic or sententious, while his character of royal majesty in Königlich Gebet could not have been mistaken for haughtiness or arrogance, and this constituted a noble conclusion to the programme.
All four singers came together in Wolf’s Epiphanias and Loewe’s Gesang der Geister. In the former, Wyn, Thompson and Williams enacted the parts of the Three Kings with distinct musical guises, and having given self-deprecating accounts of themselves they gingerly left the stage, leaving an exasperated Hellier as the narrator alone, wondering whether they will find their way to the Christ child. As an ensemble in the Loewe, they created a rich musical sound, making it more than simply a part song. Towards the end of the setting there was a certain drama and joyfulness in the music, together with a fairly florid piano part, that seemed to echo Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia.
Again, Kynoch’s accompaniments almost always provided more than just adequate support, but in partnership with the voices revealed latent dimensions within the songs – particularly in Wolf’s settings, where the musical textures are frequently an integral part of the songs’ structures. Only the probing, rising second figures in Schubert’s Geheimes seemed to plod a bit, but otherwise Kynoch’s interpretations caught the essence of each song.