Baritone Dietrich Henschel’s compelling vision of the sea at the Oxford Lieder Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival 2021 [2] – Elgar and Schubert: Polly Leech (mezzo-soprano), Dietrich Henschel (baritone), Lucy Colquhoun and Sholto Kynoch (piano). St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford 12.10.2021. (CR)

ElgarSea Pictures, Op.37

Schubert – ‘Grenzen der Menscheit’, D716; ‘Fischerweise’, D881; ‘Gondelfahrer’, D808; ‘Der Schiffer’, D694; ‘Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren’, D360; ‘Der Schiffer’, D536; ‘Meeres Stille’, D216; ‘Der Zwerg’, D771; ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’, D774; ‘Der Taucher’, D77 / D111

This instalment of the Oxford Lieder Festival’s series on ‘Nature’s Songbook’ took us to the sea, opening with emerging artists Polly Leech and Lucy Colquhoun performing four of the five songs which constitute Elgar’s Sea Pictures (presumably in the composer’s own arrangement for piano, but the programme did not specify).

Although most associated with the alto voice, Leech’s mezzo-soprano register brought a dusky hue to the lowest part of the writing (as, for instance, in the very opening phrase ‘The deeps have music soft and low’) but then opened out in vivid contrast in the brighter soprano range, as though looking up to the sun and sky after the translucent density of the water. That alone was almost sufficient to instil drama and interpretive variety in these warm performances, but her attentive and nuanced rendition of the words themselves brought winning clarity. There was particular, onomatopoeic excitability in some strongly declaimed passages of ‘The Swimmer’, pushing on to its triumphant conclusion, which made a satisfying structural contrast with the forceful but tremblingly tentative ending of the preceding song ‘Where Corals Lie’.

Dietrich Henschel and Sholto Kynoch took forwards the images and ideas associated with the sea for the main part of the recital, in a selection of Schubert’s songs which actually depict it, rather than simply using water as metaphor for aspects of human experience, although it does serve as the springboard for that.

Despite the fluid and constantly shifting form of water and the seas, these songs elicited some sturdy and strenuous performances from Henschel, even in the more light-hearted settings (‘Fischerweise’ and ‘Der Schiffer’, D536) with Kynoch’s insistent accompaniment, though a sense of fun was certainly present. The night-time watch of the gondolier in ‘Gondelfahrer’ was expressed with a fairly sombre tone, with the foreboding tolling of the bell of St Mark’s in the piano accompaniment, whilst the song to the twin stars Castor and Pollux (‘Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren’) was delivered with a still intensity that was masterfully sustained throughout. Most impressive in that respect was the longer span of ‘Grenzen der Menscheit’ in which the steady, rock-like quality of the vocal melody in this performance, allied with Kynoch’s stern, even angry chords, created a very solemn lesson to humankind which might otherwise overreach itself.

Also serving as a lesson not to tempt fate or push one’s luck is the long song ‘Der Taucher’, really more like an operatic scena and setting an extensive poem by Friedrich Schiller. To describe the performance here in the much overused phrase, a tour de force, may seem to damn with faint praise. But that is really the only term which came most readily to mind, as both Henschel and Kynoch maintained a consistently dramatic musical presence throughout in telling the narrative of a young squire who plunges into a treacherous, hellish sea to reclaim a golden goblet which his king has hurled into it as a challenge. As in the other narrative song here, ‘Der Zwerg’, any grainy quality in Henschel’s timbre added a certain edge to the performance (if disrupting the lyricism of the other songs) and the celebrated ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ took on a sense of urgency in the hope to transcend time, rather than resignation towards that. Overall, these were performances which presented a compelling vision of the sea, rather than one of lulling, benumbing reassurance.

Curtis Rogers

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