United Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival’s The Grand Tour  – Brahms & Schumann: Thomas Oliemans (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano). Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 25.10.2018. (CR)
Brahms – Die Schöne Magelone Op.33
Schumann – Liederkreis Op.39
Rather than presenting Brahms’s great, but still too little-known, song cycle in one continuous sequence, Thomas Oliemans adopted the inspired idea of interspersing it with one of Schumann’s more prominent collection of songs. That was justified on the basis that Brahms’s cycle does not really provide a continuous narrative, or at least emotional trajectory (in the manner of Schubert’s three cycles but really a variety of episodes instead (Brahms called them ‘Romances’) fashioned from fifteen of the verses inserted into the chapters of Ludwig Tieck’s re-telling of the 16th to 17th century Spanish playwright Lope de Vega’s drama The Three Diamonds. Three of Schumann’s songs slotted in after every three songs from Brahms’s cycle provided an apt counterpoint in each case, particularly in view of the close musical and personal connections between those two German composers, despite the 21-year gap between the two compositions (Brahms’s coming after his mentor’s death).
Oliemans launched Brahms’s settings with an emphatic, forceful account of ‘Keinen hat es noch gereut’ which generally set the tone for the rest of his performances, with their narrative urgency and, at times, even almost strident projection. That suited the vigour and complexity of Brahms’s music, and with his experience in the opera house, OIiemans brought to bear a dramatic sensibility compellingly and successfully in most of these songs.
However, in slower numbers that mitigated against a more convincing introspection and lyricism in tone which, at quieter volumes or in a higher register, tended to become tremulous. Even with generally muscular and attentive accompaniment by Malcolm Martineau, it sometimes seemed that they were fighting one another for attention, rather than coming together with unanimous purpose; or that sometimes Oliemans would not quite follow Martineau into a more contrasting section within a song, such as the suggestive tinkling of the piano to denote the secret beating of the heart in ‘Sind es Schmerzen’, or in exactly matching the change of meter in the last stanza of ‘War es dir, dem diese Lippen bebten’ with the same alacrity that Martineau elegantly negotiated.
Nonetheless the mood and tone which Oliemans was able to sustain across a whole song was impressive in its concentration, where required, such as in Brahms’s ‘Ruhe, Süssliebchen’. That also worked well in some of Schumann’s songs, such as the steady, consistent control needed to make a satisfying unity of the famous ‘Mondnacht’ with the repetitions of its memorable vocal line, modified harmonically in the last iteration to draw a cathartic conclusion, or the sense of a cumulative development towards the effusive climax of the next song, ‘Schöne Fremde’. However, despite the rich tone of voice which Oliemans projected, to his great credit, these songs of Schumann (which tend to conjure a more inward, abstract state of mind or feeling in contrast with the more dramatic situations of Brahms’s songs) really required more varied shading to bring out their particular beauties and points of interest. Again, more lyrical charm would have been welcome rather than merely drawing back in volume with uncertain results in holding a steady tone, though the hymn-like setting of ‘Auf einer Burg’ was cleanly and crisply focussed, showing that Oliemans was capable of that.
A larger venue than the Holywell Music Room might well have obscured this lack of subtlety, and repertoire such as Brahms’s cycle clearly plays to Oliemans’s considerable strengths, rather than the more contemplative items od Schumann’s series. The stark juxtaposition and intertwining of the two works here perhaps made it a more difficult task to accomplish due contrast between them, but otherwise Oliemans’s dramatic characterisation and consistent musical presence were impressive indeed, and one can only hope he will appear at the Oxford Lieder Festival in the future.