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Oxford Lieder Festival (1): Schumann, Mussorgsky, Duparc, Quilter
Mark Stone (baritone), Sholto Kynoch (piano) Holywell Music Room, Oxford, England 13.10.2007 (AO)

This was the first formal concert in this year's Oxford Lieder festival, but in some ways a lower profile concert held the previous day might have longer term effects than any of us realise yet.  For the past few weeks, a composer, singer and pianist associated with Oxford Lieder have been working with over 100 students from 3 local schools, two of them primary schools for children under 11. Starting from absolute scratch, they've composed a 40 minute song cycle, and performed it themselves. Because the students were so enthusiastic, what they produced was very imaginative. Sometimes all were singing at once, in complex polyphony, which  proves that even very young children can create and enjoy music.  Presumably the experience will motivate them as they grow up, and become music lovers (and musician)  in their turn.

One of the things I like so much about Oxford Lieder is that it's dedicated to learning through performance.  It's an organisation that's brave enough to experiment and to push boundaries, if the results mean better understanding of the genre.  So I got a lot out of the first “official” concert with Mark Stone and Sholto Kynoch.  It's not often we see recitalists in white tie and tails these days, but this was the first concert of the festival and an event to celebrate.

Prior to the performance, the broadcaster Roderick Swanston spoke about the difference between German and Russian art song.  Broadly speaking, German Lieder is introspective and personal, while Russian song is theatrical and declamatory. In German song, we're hearing a poet articulate his inner feelings, almost as if he were entirely alone.  In Russian song, poems tell a story and are meant to be dramatic.  To use the analogy of speech, German melody is like private conversation.  Russian melodic lines grab attention, with the vocal equivalent of exclamation points and upper case.  In Germany, song audiences were people who met in parlours to hear music derived from Gesänge and Minnelied.  In Russia, music lovers didn't have quite such  rosy images of folk music, taking their pleasure from opera.  Thus Lieder and Russian song represent two very different sensibilities.   They inhabit different worlds.

Stone is a rising star in the opera world ho has already made a name for himself at the ENO, where I last heard him as Yamadori in the famous Minghella Madame Butterfly.  This year he's made his debut in Covent Garden.  He posses a formidably large baritone, so big that it carries magnificently on stage.  It came in danger of engulfing the tiny Holywell Music Room. Fortunately, Stone was wise enough to restrain himself and adapt to the gentler, more refined acoustic. 

Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death were well suited to his powerful style.  He threw himself into the drama, relishing their mood of heightened fervour.  We could almost see Death dancing the Trepak with the drunken old peasant, mocking him as he drags himself home, seductively tempting him with visions of a soft warm bed, when we know the dance will end with the peasant frozen in snow.  Kynoch's playing here was gloriously manic, echoing the fractured unreality in the text. Stone's Field Marshall is another strong characterisation, sung with glowering menace. I have heard it performed quite differently – and quietly – to chilling effect, but this was certainly rousing.

Schumann's Liederkreis op 24 demonstrated Swanston's comments on the difference between Lieder and Russian song.  While Stone's operatic background served him so well in the theatrical Mussorgsky set, it obscured the more subtle mood of Schumann's songs.  Heine can be declamatory, and he's often brutally sardonic, but Schumann captures the inner vulnerability at the heart of these ironic poems. Like the Rhine, they glisten prettily on the surface but their depths are treacherous.  The Mussorgsky songs are ironic too, but they're semi narrative so characterisation in an operatic style works well.  In Schumann, the clues lurk in the melodic line : as in conversation the gaps and hesitations express as much as the words themselves. This was certainly an unusual Liederkreis op 24.  Being a Lieder person it wasn't really my thing but I appreciated what Stone was doing because he's an instinctive opera person and was bringing to it an operatic interpretation.  Many people don't like Lieder : some even find the genre too personal and inward, though for others that's exactly why it's a challenge.  I wish they'd been present here so they could hear for themselves just why Lieder specialists do what they do:  there was logic to this performance, and it had a salutary effect.  Stone has the guts to experiment and it will do him a lot of good in the long term.  He'll be a better Lieder singer for the experience.

Kynoch's playing showed what a good accompanist can achieve.  In the Mussorgsky, his job was to match the singing.  In Schumann's evocative preludes and postludes, he provided the subtler commentary, gently pulling Stone back towards a more Lieder-like ethos.   Singers and pianists are supposed to work together and support each other, and this was a very good example of their interaction.  In the Duparc songs that followed, Kynoch's deft pedal deepened the colours to match Stone's dark timbre.  It was a good example of pianist adapting to singer. 

Stone has recently recorded all of Roger Quilter's songs on 4 CDs, two of which are just out.  I haven't yet heard them, but from the way he sang a selection here, I will be very interested to follow up.  It was good because he approached the songs with simple directness, suited to their nature.  “Come away, come away Death” was especially lyrical.  By this stage Stone had relaxed into the genre and we were hearing what he's really capable of.  The Shakespeare and Herrick settings are beautiful as poetry and a straightforward, clear approach serves them very well. So it was an enjoyable evening, in the true Oxford Lieder Festival tradition of teaching new ways of thinking about the familiar.



Anne Ozorio



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