United Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival – Schubert, Brahms, Wolf. Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Graham Johnson (piano): Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford 16.10.2015 (CR)
Schubert: Verklärung, D59
Die Sterbende, D186
Abendlied der Fürstin, D495
Bertas Lied in der Nacht, D653
Die junge Nonne, D828
Ellens Gesang I (Raste Krieger! Krieg ist aus), D837
Ellens Gesang II (Jäger, ruhe von der Jagd!), D838
Ellens Gesang III (Ave Maria), D839
Die Unterscheidung, D866 No.1
Die Männer sind mechant, D866 No.3
Brahms: Ständchen, Op. 106 No.1
Da unten im Tale, WoO 33 No.6
Feldinsamkeit, Op. 86 No.2
Alte Liebe, Op. 72 No.1
Die Mainacht, Op. 43 No.2
Von ewiger Liebe, Op. 43 No.1
Wolf: Auch kleine Dinge
Der Mond hat eine schwere Klag’ erhoben
Kennst du das Land
This year’s Oxford Lieder Festival examines art song not just simply as a musical form but particularly in terms of a response to poetry and poets. Hence a host of major European writers will be explored through some of the music which their words have prompted. The opening recital gave, perhaps, only a limited foretaste of what is to come, albeit through the work of three German speaking composers who stand at the forefront of song composition. (The complete songs of Fauré will feature in a series of lunchtime recitals, whilst future concerts will focus on a handful of poets at a time, of a single nationality.) The selection of songs here set the words by an array of writers, for example Goethe, Grillparzer, Eichendorff, Mörike, and (in translation) Pope and Walter Scott.
The first half seemed to take up where last year’s complete Schubert cycle ended, with a brief reprise of that composer’s output though a choice of eleven songs (covering most of his creative life, as witness the ‘D’ numbers). By and large this was not an obvious selection of songs, but evidently it was programmed to demonstrate Schubert’s phenomenal ability to set a diverse variety of texts. Sarah Connolly is, of course, not only a consummate musician, but a convincing actress too, and with Graham Johnson at the piano they formed a dream team. She sang all the songs with her characteristically warm, seamless tone and exemplary breath control which made for a very moving interpretation of the famous Ave Maria (taken fairly briskly and avoiding sentimentality), and a consoling account of Raste Krieger! Krieg ist aus (both taken from the set of seven which Schubert composed setting lyrics from Scott’s The Lady of the Lake).
Vitally, however, Connolly also brought nuance and incident to make of each song a compelling drama in its own right, rather than a merely beautiful, indulgent rendition of delightful vocal melody. In Verklärung the recitative-like sections and contrasting sustained arioso passages were distinguished appropriately; on certain words in Ammenlied she cultivated a ringing tone like a bell, and gave the song almost a throwaway ending and a mock gravity. For Bertas Lied in der Nacht her repetitions of the little turn of phrase on “Schlummer” and “schlumm’re du” were effectively hypnotic, echoed in the Johnson’s oscillating sequence on the piano in the coda, comprising a harmony that foreshadows the Tristan chord.
In a couple of instances Connolly skilfully shunned an obvious interpretation of the text, bringing out a deeper emotional meaning. Both she and Johnson characterised the raging storm mentioned at the beginning of Die junge Nonne with surprising calm, building up to a stronger outpouring of emotion in the description of the inner, psychological, storm the nun has experienced, and finding resignation, rather than radiance so much, in the final “Alleluia”, making the song seem more like a memory than the recounting of a narrative in the present. In the earthier Die Männer sind mechant (one of the four humorous Refrainlieder) where the singer learns of the inconstancy of men, Connolly sang the first two verses with comic, girlish disgust; but with the last declamation of the song’s refrain (“men are naughty”) she gave a sly suggestiveness, as if to suggest that she also now knows how to act in matters of the heart and how to enjoy herself.
Where Connolly brought clarity, and even innocence, for the most part, in the Schubert settings, she utilised a richer, darker, more complex tone for the Brahms songs with their themes of melancholy and loneliness typical of the composer, and a more rarefied exoticism for the Wolf. In the case of the Brahms, that did not preclude a suitably Schubertian lyricism for the folksong arrangement of Da unten im Tale, or a sense of Mahlerian resignation in Feldeinsamkeit presaging Der Abschied of Das Lied von der Erde. Johnson and Connolly performed Von ewiger Liebe powerfully and, again defying expectations, it was not the young man’s recriminations and desire to split up which carried the emotional force of the song (appropriately acidic though Connolly’s rendition of that section was) but the indefatigable protestations of the girl.
The selection of the (generally shorter) Wolf songs called for a wider range of colours and emotions, which were all conveyed masterfully by singer and pianist, from the drama of Kennst du das Land, the delicate chromaticisms of Auch kleine Dinge können uns entzücken, the glowing Brucknerian succession of harmonies in Gesang Weylas, and the dreaminess of Verborgenheit. The performance of the Hungarian style Die Zigeunerin (though marked with chromatically decorated open fifths in the bass line of the piano, surely harking back to Der Leiermann of Schubert’s Winterreise) was another masterpiece of dramatic interpretation on Connolly and Johnson’s part. The latter observed that with the exclusively male consort of composers and poets in this recital, “a certain human element was lacking”, and so they gave, for an encore, Clara Schumann’s charming Gute Nacht, die ich dir sage, whose simplicity of expression belied greater emotional depth.
As the nights start to draw in again at the onset of autumn, the prospect of two weeks of song recitals, with the vast world of stirring emotions that can be powerfully and directly conjured by a single singer and accompanist, is great comfort indeed. Connolly and Johnson have already set the bar high.
For details of the Oxford Lieder Festival see www.oxfordlieder.co.uk.