Oxford Lieder Festival:
Nina Bennet (soprano), Dominic Grier (conductor),
Sequenza, New College Chapel Antechamber, Oxford, 20.10.2005
Hirt auf dem Felsen
Martin Suckling (b 1981): An Lon Dubh (Blackbird)
Mozart: Flute Quartet No 1 in D major
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.
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
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.