United Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival – Brahms, Fauré: Robert Holl (bass), Sholto Kynoch (piano), Elleanor Hicks (soprano), Merton College Choir, Benjamin Nicholas (conductor): Merton College Chapel, Oxford 31.10.2015 (MH)
Brahms: Four Serious Songs, Op. 121
The Chancel of Merton College Chapel was filled to capacity for this Concert, appropriately scheduled on All Saints’ Eve. In tune with the biblical text of the Brahms songs, the atmosphere was sombre. The piano and performance space for the Serious Songs placed nearest the altar on a slightly raised rostrum, the artistry of both singer and accompanist became the light in the chapel gloom.
First performed and written in 1896 for low voice, Brahms’ Four Serious Songs were dedicated to Max Klinger, and later became later a Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau favourite in the 20th Century.
Robert Holl, Dutch bass, renowned for his opera roles used his now mature, yet still flexible bass to inhabit the sentiment of the first three songs. He was able to take risks and emotional tone changes that a younger performer would not attempt. Here was a vocal expression of emotion about the pithiness of life – “Denn es gehet dem Menschen” and death – “O Tod, wie bitter bist du”, where you felt the performer had true mature insight. The fourth song lighter in content with many well known biblical quotes on faith, hope and charity, showed not only a wide vocal spectrum but a still agile voice. Holl has a true bass voice which was heard here at its best in the chapel acoustic. The accompaniment of Kynoch was always supportive and skilful.
It was about-turn for part 2 as the audience were requested to turn their chairs around to look in the opposite direction for the Fauré Requiem. The choir and orchestra were seated in the reduced Nave area of Merton Chapel, proximal to the organist.
Composed in the same era as the Brahms songs, the theme of death continued in this shortened version of the Catholic Mass for the dead. Here the acoustic gave ethereal tone to the whole performance – truly moving. No concentration here on the fear of death and damnation, but the peaceful passage from the living world. The choral writing was brought even more tellingly to life by the angelic tones of soprano Elleanor Hicks whose Pie Jesu exceeded the Classic FM experience with beautiful purity of tone and feeling. Robert Holl sang with mature dignity in the baritone solo with chorus – Libera me. The Merton College choir and orchestra were magnificent throughout this work, conducted with empathy by Benjamin Nicholas. Notable were the solo violin in Sanctus and the organ playing throughout; sadly not credited. A soulful In paradisum closed this atmospheric performance greeted by the delayed applause of a very appreciative audience – a tribute to All Saints.
This was another excellent event from the Oxford Lieder Festival 2015.