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Seen and Heard Recital Review

 

Robert Fuchs, Brahms, Robert and Clara Schumann, Mahler, Wolf, Korngold, Stephan Loges (baritone), James Gilchrist (tenor), Natasha Loges (piano), Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 20th October, 2004(AO)

 

The Oxford Lieder Festival has earned a reputation for imaginative, innovative programming, but this concert was unusually good by the highest standards. This concert was an exploration of the songs of Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) whose songs are little known, even to those who know the composer’s other work. Yet Fuchs was a seminal figure in music circles of his time. He knew and was highly influenced by Brahms, and by Brahms’ own mentor, Schumann. Fuchs taught composition at the Vienna Conservatory for forty years. Among his pupils were Mahler, Wolf, Sibelius, Melartin, Zemlinsky and the eight year old prodigy, George Enescu.

 

The programme was devised by Natasha Loges, a pianist and musicologist at London’s Guildhall, where she specialises in Brahms’ piano songs. Since Fuchs' songs are so little known, interspersing them with readings from letters and documents from his time helped set a context. Fuch's descriptions of meeting Brahms indicate how deeply he was in awe of the master. His early songs have a charming, natural lyricism. In Auch diese schönen Äugelein, to a poem by one of Brahms' favourites, Georg Friedrich Daumer, the piano part curls lovingly around the words. It may be very Brahmsian, but would have sounded like “new music” in comparison to, say, Loewe. Fuchs uses preludes and postludes sparingly, but sometimes he lets fly. At the end of the Eichendorff song, Glück, he cannot restrain an almost Wolfian outburst of high spirits on the final words “Mein liebchen herzinnig, Das soll' ich heut' sehn” (My dear sweetheart, who'll I'll see today). A duet, Heraus !, shows the Brahmsian influence strikingly. It might have come straight from a Brahms collection. Yet, at this point, a Brahms song, Wie froh und frisch, was introduced, deftly illustrating just how much more distinctive and deep Brahms' own voice was.

 

Nonetheless, Fuchs' songs have a kind of inner radiance, so subtle it could easily be missed. Gilchrist and the Loges have studied these songs carefully and picked out the felicities. One particularly lovely example comes from the Uhland setting, Seliger Tod. The composer takes two lines of the poem together, in a gorgeous, long arching crescendo. The next two replicate the curve with different words, and the words “In ihren Armen” are repeated. The last verse takes the pattern further, reinforcing the pairs of long curving lines, and the words “Den Himmel” and “In ihren Augen” repeat too, as in a delicate pattern.

 

Similarly, Fuchs' setting of the Reinick poem Nachtgesang shows inventiveness. The piano part starts with a twinkling melody, like starlight. Again, Fuchs takes two lines of the text and sets them min a lingering phrase. But the final critical words are transposed down in tone, rather than, as one might expect, upwards. The firmness of the vocal line contrasts withbthe lightness of the piano's evocation of stars, and waves glittering in the moonlight.

 

Clara Schumann's letter in praise of Fuchs was read, and her song Geheimes Flüstern was performed. Clara Schumann may be fashionable today, but in this song, her gifts appear more modest, more in parrallel to Fuchs as Fuchs was to Schumann and Brahms.

 

Descriptions of Fuch's non-vocal works, the cello concerto, the romances and the First Symphony in C were read, to remind us of the broader sweep of his music. Hans Richter, who conducted the symphony's premiere, wrote of the warm reception it received. Another source, tellingly, described the symphony as restrained and gentle – not all symphonies “have” to be fff, quoting the first bars of Beethoven's Fifth, and the Bible: “in my Father's house there are many rooms”. Fuchs may have been the “Master of Kleinkunst”, small-scale art, and have written with unassuming gentleness, but there's a place in the world for that, too. Yet around Fuchs, the world was Fuchs' students went on to greater things than their teacher would have imagined. But it's nice to speculate what they may have learned from him. Mahler's early Selbstgefühl, for example, unselfconsciously uses the folk idiom of the Wunderhorn poems in a simple, naturalistic mode.

 

In 1897, Fuch's life was shattered by the deaths of his wife, and of Brahms. Fifteen years later, he was dismissed from his post, on the grounds that he was “rooted in a idyllic past”, unreceptive to the new music of a new generation. In his loneliness and disgrace, what might he have thought of Mahler, of Wolf and their music? In his Op. 81, sets Das Grab, a song about a lonely grave, in peaceful ground, where no unhappy voice mourns. It is contemplative rather than melancholy, until the last stanza when a heartfelt expression of grief bursts forth. Another pair of Fuchs and Brahms songs end the recital. The Fuchs song Schöne Nacht is a gentle meditation, breathing peace and beauty. The Brahms setting is more sanguine: the singer challenges God to raise him to the stars. There may have been much more to Fuchs than tender serenades, but the contrast between himself and Brahms does not diminish what he achieved in his own quiet way.

 

Natasha Loges herself is a modest, self-effacing person, but her intelligence and inner beauty shine out, in the deep feeling with which she plays and reads. She is currently assisting Graham Johnson on a volume of Schubert songs. The baritone, Stephan Loges, her husband, and James Gilchrist, the tenor sang wit warmth and commitment. Both have voices comfortable in the lower ranges, and sing with a direct naturalness that suits the sturdy Brahms persona. In duet, they were particularly impressive, as their voices complemented each other seamlessly. It was a wonderful concert, a revelation for those interested in repertoire, a pleasure simply to enjoy. Congratulations yet again to Sholto Kynoch and the oxford Lieder Festival!

 

 

Anne Ozorio

 


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