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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Seen and Heard Concert Review



Oxford Lieder Festival: Nina Bennet (soprano), Dominic Grier (conductor), Sequenza, New College Chapel Antechamber, Oxford, 20.10.2005 (AO)


Schubert: Der Hirt auf dem Felsen

Martin Suckling (b 1981): An Lon Dubh (Blackbird)

Mozart: Flute Quartet No 1 in D major

Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire


The Oxford Lieder Festival started only in 2001, yet has already become an important part of musical life in this country.  It is the Glyndebourne and Garsington of the song world, part of a tradition where enterprising music lovers take the initiative and achieve great results.  Each year sees a special perspective.  This year the Festival integrates new and old in its programming and features rising new singers, some of whom are very good indeed. This fits in with the Oxford group’s ethos.  All year round they sponsor concerts, giving younger musicians the pleasure of making music before an audience.  Smaller, intimate venues recreate the atmosphere of Liederabende, bringing players and listeners into more direct contact.   This year's Festival focuses on the interplay between “old” music and new, and  performers  who are “rising stars” as well as established celebrities like Olaf Bär. 


Sequenza is a professional ensemble, devoted to programming contemporary and traditional music side by side.  Hence the astounding programme – what singer, I wondered, was such a glutton for punishment as to sing two of the more difficult pieces in the whole song repertoire in one evening?  But Nina Bennet is made of strong material.  Her voice is confident and she rose to the challenge of Schubert's ambitious Shepherd on the Rock.  Schubert wrote it as a commission for the most virtuosic soprano of his time, who wanted a technically difficult showcase to display her skills.  So Schubert gave her a corker.  This lovely song  leaps and swoops down the scales with  seemingly fluid ease, but requires sophisticated breath and voice control in any singer.  It may sound carefree, but demands even more concentration than straightforward piano song.  The clarinet part, here played by Andrew Harper, is very much the singer's equal.  The song is a complex dialogue between voice and clarinet, underpinned by an assertively commentary piano.  Harper was very good indeed, lovingly expressing the lyricism of long, curling passages.  Even in the glorious baroque architecture of New College Chapel, he evoked the image of a lonely shepherd, perched on the rock, playing for his own amusement, in communion with nature.  His approach complemented the warmth and lushness of Bennet's voice.  Sometimes this song lends itself to the silvery ethereality of voices like Nancy Argenta.   Bennet was earthier, but charming, smiles radiantly lighting her face.  Hers is a rendition that expresses the en plein air robustness Schubert would have remembered from his sojourns in the countryside.   The pianist, Joseph Middleton, supported the voice and clarinet with ease.


Der Hirt was Schubert's last commission.  Martin Suckling's An Lohn Dub is the Festival's first commission: such has the Festival established sound roots.   The song is written in ancient Gaelic, the forerunner of modern Irish, Scottish and Welsh.   If ever there was a place where there would be an expert in lost languages, it would be here in Oxford.  But no one raised their hands when the composer asked if anyone was familiar with it.  No matter.  The orchestration featured strings skittering in rakish angles, like a bird flitting from perch to perch.  Again, Bennet showed what a trouper she can be singing the strange, alien syntax as if it were her normal tongue.   No one in the audience to quibble about pronunciation!  As music it made good sense. 


The interplay between instruments shown in Der Hirt was repeated in the Mozart flute Concerto.  Needless to say, the flautist, Eliza Marshall shone, but particular mention should also be made of the richly involving playing of Rosalind Acton. 


Then came the ambitious Schoenberg Pierrot Lunaire.  Here all attention is on the soprano, and it was, as I feared, asking too much, however keen the singer.  Where the text allowed, such as in Columbine, Bennet could use her naturally sensuous timbre.  As the cycle progressed, though, she was less able to keep the balance between singing and Sprechstimme, and gradually the strain began to show.  Low notes became hoarsely occluded, as if she'd developed a cold – or was the beginning of the evening a brave suppression of one?  Schmerzen” and “Todeskranker Mond” sounded heartfelt.  Nonetheless, a programme as daring as this was, in terms of music history, would have taxed the best of singers.  I was quite happy to listen to this, knowing that the Festival is also “about” encouraging performers to stretch themselves.  To get to be a star, you have to take on the challenges.  That is one of the many reasons I have supported the Oxford Lieder Festival so strongly.  It is proof that a group of inspired individuals can get together and produce wonderful results, keeping the genre alive, personal and exciting. 


Anne Ozorio






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