Combining Schubert, Vaughan Williams and Blake in Oxford was intriguing rather than enriching

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Oxford International Song Festival 2023 [3] – Schubert, Vaughan Williams: Anna Cavaliero (soprano), Robin Tritschler (tenor), James Turnbull (oboe), Dame Janet Suzman (reader), Graham Johnson (piano). Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 22.10.2023. (CR)

Anna Cavaliero (soprano) 

Schubert – Die schöne Müllerin, D795

interspersed with:

Vaughan Williams – Ten Blake SongsThe Shepherd; The Piper; A Poison Tree; Cruelty has a human heart; Ah, sunflower

Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin – one of the first and greatest song cycles – is such a monument of the Lieder repertoire that it can assuredly survive any manner of reinterpretation and adaptation. This was the first of three manifestations of it on the second day of the ongoing Oxford International Song Festival’s discrete ‘Schubert weekend’ and the most conventional. Even so, it was not given unadulterated, but in a project devised by Graham Johnson, interspersed with a handful of numbers from Vaughan Williams’s late clutch of ‘Blake’ Songs, and readings from various collections of that poet’s writings.

Beforehand I was somewhat sceptical as to how well it would work in practice. The results were more intriguing, perhaps, rather than completely enriching the emotional development of Schubert’s setting of Wilhelm Müller’s poems, though some may well have found the connections between the cycle and its authors’ older English contemporary illuminating, given that Blake’s themes generally complement or ironise rather than contradict those songs (Blake and Müller died within a month of each other in 1827, and Schubert a little over a year later in 1828).

The readings were generally brief, so did not break up the flow of Lieder and melody as much as I had initially feared. But it still meant changing mental and emotional gear between the Blake interpolations on the one hand, and the wonderful seamlessness of Schubert’s ingeniously calibrated sequence where the shifts in moods and contrasts are so astutely wrought with respect to the series of poems, which weren’t specifically designed by Müller to be a continuous narrative – but Schubert’s music forges them into such a convincing unity. (Perhaps the one totally logical and telling addition was to include a reading of one of the few poems of Müller’s series that Schubert didn’t set.)  Even more, the shifts in musical style between the folksong-inspired Vaughan Williams settings and Schubert’s were incongruous, albeit that the presentation of ‘The Shepherd’ by Anna Cavaliero’s alone as a prelude to Schubert’s cycle conjured effectively an image of the female ideal that is the unspoken object of the Shepherd’s yearning, implied in this song, and which could also, therefore, be taken as the putative prompt for the Miller’s whole emotional journey. But it would surely have been better to present a sequence of Blake poems and related musical settings in a short first half of a recital and leave Schubert’s cycle as an integral whole in the second to preserve its trajectory intact. Given that there had to be an interval on account of the length of all the assembled material here, then it made sense to insert it after ‘Mein!’ at the moment of the Miller’s apparent, but short-won triumph, before the catastrophe which follows. The overall result of this composite programme was to put Schubert’s cycle at a certain distance, as though in quotation marks, especially in Dame Janet Suzman’s redoubtable RADA-style rhetorical delivery of Blake’s poetry in received pronunciation. Her voice of authority and wisdom seemed to render the expressions of youthful love and psychological fragility as contingent and provisional, not stemming from the reader’s own personal experience, like the Miller’s in the cycle.

Despite having to accommodate the stops and starts to the musical sequence, and delivering one of the spoken texts himself (Blake’s ‘When early morn walks forth’ from the Poetical Sketches immediately after Schubert’s song ‘Der Jäger‘) Robin Tritschler certainly sustained a consistent ardour and register in his singing, a slight wavering (not quite a vibrato) aptly voicing the young man’s nervous hope and fragile joy. The generally ringing clarity of his tone didn’t boil over into an unwarranted confidence or pride, and in fact the rage and fear of ‘Der Jäger’ as his rival appears could have been less cautious and more furious. But his witty surprise, expressed that the Miller Girl is ‘mein’ in the eponymous song, and later the numb disbelief of jealousy rather than passion and anger for ‘Die liebe Farbe’ were welcome.

At the piano Graham Johnson gave a fairly interventionist account of the accompanying part that didn’t exactly settle into a poetic background for the songs, but kept up an almost defiant voice of its own (though that may simply have been that the grand piano was rather powerful in the relatively small space of the Holywell Music Room, at least for the rows closest to the stage). In a few songs the keyboard seemed slightly uncoordinated with the voice, or a touch effortful, and in ‘Pause’ opening the second half, there was the odd chromaticism clumsily inserted or note omitted. But in general, Johnson’s more demonstrative manner signalled well the changes of mood or events – just one example was his emphasis of the striking and typically Schubertian key change in the middle of ‘Wohin?’ just before the verse starting ‘Ist das denn meine Strasse?’ to underline the metaphorical, existential import of that question.

Cavaliero’s performance of the five Vaughan Williams pieces was bright and arresting, all the more so in the plangent blending of her voice with the keening oboe in James Turnbull’s rendition of ‘A Poison Tree’, contrasting with the more coy character of his accompaniment to the ‘The Piper’ beforehand, and the instrument’s sighing motifs in ‘Cruelty has a human heart’ following. The combination of the disparate elements in the overall programme was perhaps modified rapture, but on its own terms the Schubert was, at least, moving and sincere.

Curtis Rogers

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