United Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival – The Schubert Project. Kate Royal (soprano), Sarah Walker, Bethan Langford (mezzo-soprano), Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone), Schubert’s Nightingales, Mark van de Wiel (clarinet), Sholto Kynoch, Eugene Asti (piano): St John the Evangelist church, Oxford, 1.11.2014 (CR)
Schubert: Der Zwerg, D771
Nacht und Träume, D827
Rondo in A major for piano duet, D951
Der 23. Psalm, D706
Die Sterne, D939
Schwanengesang (selection), D957
Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, D965
Die Taubenpost, D965a
The final concert in the Oxford Lieder Festival’s remarkable Schubert Project was, naturally, a farewell of at least two sorts. It marked the culmination of what is believed to be the first complete cycle of Schubert’s songs in this country. Also, the second half of the programme featured the last songs the composer wrote shortly before his untimely death in 1828. It was therefore all too poignant to reach the final bars of Die Taubenpost and to reflect upon the fact of an extraordinarily fertile talent suddenly cut off in the prime of his genius. Few other songs could better sum up the Schubertian worldview than this, addressing the faithful pigeon who carried the poet’s messages of love, and which is called ‘Sehnsucht’ (‘longing’) – that great watchword of German Romanticism, which would be further taken up and explored by Schubert’s successors such as Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Berg and Schoenberg in their songs. And surely this reviewer is not alone in perhaps finding the true equal of Schubert’s lieder in the music dramas of Wagner, in terms of the force and depth of their emotional impact.
Bethan Langford – currently a student at the Guildhall School – opened the recital with three songs, singing with a steely steadiness and vocal maturity that belied her young age. There was also a roundedness to her voice which was somewhat reminiscent of Elly Ameling. Just a few notes in Nacht und Träume were a touch insecure, but otherwise this received ideal clarity and seamlessness.
Sholto Kynoch’s accompaniments here, as elsewhere, matched the mood of the poem, setting the scene for the singer to take up – he began with an uncompromising attack in Wehmut, and sustained a reverberant, shimmering tone throughout Nacht und Träume, evoking the moonlight referred to in the text.
Kynoch was joined by Eugene Asti in Schubert’s last work for piano duet, the Rondo in A major. If the composition itself felt overlong, that was hardly the performers’ fault, and they played with the unaffected and guileless simplicity which the music seems to demand, allowing it to unfold as though in effortless flow from within itself.
The female vocal group, Schubert’s Nightingales, appeared next for the famous setting of Psalm 23, sung with freshness and no hint of sickly piety. Before their second contribution (in Ständchen) Sarah Walker gave her first ever performance at the Oxford Lieder Festival with Die Sterne. Although a slightly thin and wiry tone was detectable in her voice, and a squall in higher notes, a winning sparkle and brightness were still fully evident, with the melody delivered almost as though spontaneously. In Ständchen (setting a poem by Franz Grillparzer which is entirely different from the one by Ludwig Rellstab, set more famously in Schwanengesang) Walker was similarly radiant, as were Schubert’s Nightingales. But by playing up the apparent comedy of the interchanges between Walker and the ladies’ choir on ‘leise’, it was difficult to dispel the (surely unintended) impression of those dreadful Gilbert and Sullivan numbers where the soloist and chorus interact by the corny repetition of phrases to each other.
After the interval came Schubert’s final sequence of songs, starting with the Heinrich Heine settings from Schwanengesang. Kynoch ensured a considerable intensity of feeling in his accompaniments to songs which reflect some extreme and desperate emotional states. In a certain way Jonathan Lemalu matched that intensity with his distinctly powerful bass voice. However, his rather unyielding and fairly gritty tone did not serve very well the lyrical fervour of these songs, which required a far greater range of colour and musical nuance. Lemalu also had the last slot of this festival with Die Taubenpost, but again, a greater expressive flexibility would have made for a much more moving effect.
In between came Der Hirt auf dem Felsen with Mark van de Wiel providing a sonorous and subtle account of the solo clarinet part. Kate Royal generally sang gracefully, but some notes were unfocused (mainly in the faster, more virtuosic passages) and so the performance was not absolutely lucid. But certainly there was a sense of the singer calling out over the valley of which the song speaks.
The final word should be left, however, to extend many congratulations to Sholto Kynoch for his magnificent achievement in bringing together so many of the finest performers from around the world in order to mount this celebration of an exceptional body of music.