Mahler is the highlight of Marta Fontanals-Simmons and Sholto Kynoch’s memorable recital at Oxford

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival 2021 [4]: Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano) and Sholto Kynoch (piano). Performed at St John the Evangelist, Oxford, 21.10.2021 and livestreamed by TallWall Media (directed by Simon Wall). (JPr)

Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano) and Sholto Kynoch (piano)

Mahler – Lieder und Gesänge, No.3: ‘Hans und Grethe’; Rückert-Lieder: ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’; ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’; ‘Um Mitternacht’; ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’; ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’
Fauré ‘Après un rêve’, Op.7 No.1; ‘Soir’, Op. 83 No.2
Debussy – Chansons de Bilitis: ‘La flûte de Pan’; ‘La chevelure’; ‘Le tombeau des Naïades’
Berlioz – from Les nuits d’été: ‘Villanelle’, Op.7 No.1; ‘Le spectre de la rose’, Op.7 No.2; ‘L’île inconnue’, Op.7 No.6

The Oxford Lieder Festival was founded by pianist Sholto Kynoch (who remains its artistic director) in 2002 and I have vague memories of being approached by him in the early years of the UK’s Gustav Mahler Society I had recently helped to establish. To my shame(?) I don’t remember doing anything constructive myself then nor in subsequent years, though vicariously have followed its tremendous success during the intervening years through the reviews of others. The Oxford Lieder Festival is such an important highlight of the international classical music calendar now that any further introduction should be superfluous though if there is anyone reading this unaware of what they do they describe themselves as presenting each year ‘more than 50 concerts and dozens of other events celebrating the unique art form of song. It is well established as one of the world’s leading song festivals and the biggest in the UK, attracting many of the world’s greatest artists. Oxford Lieder has a mission to re-establish an appreciation of song; the meeting of words, music, languages and artistry that can be so powerful, yet which has been neglected in recent decades.’

This year the focus of the Festival is on Nature’s Songbook ‘at a time when [nature] has played an increasingly important part in many people’s lives, exploring how poets and composers have so often been inspired by nature and used it as a metaphor for every aspect of life.’ At this lunchtime recital Kynoch accompanied the British-Spanish mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons who replaced the originally advertised Anna Stéphany who was indisposed. I have never heard her sing before and – as heard through loudspeakers – Fontanals-Simmons seems to be a consummate lieder recitalist. Her Mahler was perhaps the highlight of an eclectic programme and was seen and heard first, beginning with an animated and utterly charming ‘Hans und Grethe’. Kynoch’s emotive and atmospheric playing came into its own during Fontanals-Simmons’s Rückert-Lieder, proving himself to be an equal partner to her very fine singing rather than just supporting her by just playing all the right notes in the right order. I could smell the fragrance of the lime during ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ and hear bees buzzing away during ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’. There was sorrow and resignation as death was stoically faced in ‘Um Mitternacht’, before Fontanals-Simmons drew us in to the rapture of ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’. Finally, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ was deeply affecting and engrossing with each word lingered over as if it was her last, rather than some of the first we had heard from her: Kynoch’s expressive postlude was particularly beautiful.

In Fauré’s ‘Après un rêve’ a dream of a lover takes flight in a song given an impassioned rendition. Then Fontanals-Simmons and Kynoch brought a sense of unease to the magic of evening which has inspired so many French poets and composers over the years. Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis are settings of three of Pierre Louÿs’s collection of poems. Fontanals-Simmons captured the mood of the songs perfectly; after a sensual ‘La flûte de Pan’, she was especially convincing when embodying more scarcely veiled eroticism in ‘La chevelure’. (Perhaps not so ‘scarcely veiled’ if you consider the implication in the translated lines ‘I was becoming you, or you were entering into me like a dream’).  Fontanals-Simmons then expressed the melancholia and dread of ‘Le tombeau des Naïades’, whilst throughout she had been supported by the sonority and aural colour of Kynoch’s unshowy pianism.

From Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été there were two lighter songs bookending ‘Le spectre de la rose’ which – regardless of how fragrant it might be and how ecstatic Fontanals-Simmons’s outpouring of emotion was – is full of intense longing, misery, and death. The amorous and carefree ‘Villanelle’ was almost cheeky by comparison and Kynoch was at his jauntiest, whilst the concluding ‘L’île inconnue’ allowed the mezzo-soprano to reveal her more playful side and Kynoch to be even more impressively virtuosic.

The warm applause from the audience in St John the Evangelist was rewarded by an intriguing encore of Clara Schumann’s setting of Rückert’s ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ which is much more reflective than Mahler’s effulgent version we had earlier heard. A lovely end to a memorable recital.

Jim Pritchard

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