Singing Their Artful Hearts Out
by Mel Cooper
One of the gems of the classical music season in the UK is the Oxford Lieder Festival, founded in 2001 by a fine pianist, Sholto Kynoch, when he was an undergraduate at the university. It has become a fixture for the city and is certainly worth the trip if you are going to be nearby between 16 and 31 October and happen to like the art of song. Venues are steeped in history and suitably intimate, like the Jacqueline Du Pré Hall in St. Hilda’s College and the historic Holywell Music Room (Europe’s oldest concert hall, opened in 1748), which Mozart and Haydn knew. Some concerts are in the odd mediaeval church or college chapel. Even if the music were not so excellent, the settings alone would be top priority.
Highlights this year include the complete Canticles of Benjamin Britten performed by pianist Julius Drake and his friends on 17 and 18 October; Wolfgang Holzmair and Andreas Haefliger interpreting Schubert’s Winterreise on 20 October; and a concert of Schumann’s Kerner Lieder (with songs by Mahler and Korngold for good measure), performed by Roderick Williams and Andrew West on 26 October. I also particularly recommend Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson in Schubert’s Schöne Müllerin (30 October).
The festival, in my experience, always has a captivating mix of new and established singers, as well as top-notch music, spiced by unexpected programming. Sholto Kynoch keeps a strong hand on the festival tiller and it reflects his tastes. The setting of Oxford itself and the surrounding Cotswolds can’t be beat, and there’s lots to see if you feel like playing hooky from the recitals. You can even get to Stratford-upon-Avon fairly easily for a play if you want a change of pace. (Or vice-versa?) There are usually three events a day, including master classes; there’s something for all tastes and interests in the field of the art song; there are cleverly themed programmes; and the festival gets stronger and more varied each year. www.oxfordlieder.co.uk
Of course, there is a huge plus at the venue: the historic surroundings! The city of Oxford was founded around 1100 B.C., and parts of its past can be found throughout the streets and inside the university. “New” College (something of an understatement) contains a medaieval wall within its gardens; Christ Church echos the power struggles between Cardinal Wolsey and Henry the VIII (and figures in Brideshead Revisited). Update: parts of Harry Potter have been filmed (digitally enhanced) within its dining hall. On a lighter note, Charley’s Aunt is set at St. John’s College. Before you start walking, climb the tower of St. Mary’s Church for a view of the entire city and relive three millennia of what happened here. Food for thought, and the perfect prelude (or postlude) to the Oxford Lieder Festival.