If you have a concept of Lieder – the German for “songs”, though the two words have never quite felt interchangeable – it may be shaped by images of trees, brooks and lonely travellers: all real and heartfelt, especially in the hands of Schubert or Schumann or Brahms, who encapsulate the central issues of life in poetic miniature. You might not expect Lieder to embrace topics such as cystitis, vaccines or getting your head stuck in a too-small dress in a changing room. It can, and does. Tonight the Oxford Lieder festival (OLF) reaches the end of its 20th anniversary fortnight. During the years of its existence, Sholto Kynoch, pianist, founder and artistic director, has explored the wilder horizons of song, perhaps to his own surprise as much as anyone else’s. Lieder, if you let them, can enfold everything in their grasp.
The clever aspect of this festival is that it has kept traditional repertoire at the heart, so you’ll always find Schubert. But OLF has taken seriously its duty – and pleasure – to support living composers, with 20 commissions or premieres this year. Song Futures, featuring rising stars and contemporary works, is one of several strands. This late-night series would satisfy most of us as an event in itself. The mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston and baritone Michael Craddock, with pianist Alexander Soares, sang Isolation Songbook, a lockdown collection on everything from the singers’ Covid-postponed wedding day to a burnt cake.
Another mezzo-soprano, Fleur Barron, performed One Life Stand (2011), the voluptuous and biting cycle by Cheryl Frances-Hoad to poems by the crime writer Sophie Hannah. This sharp redressing of the Lieder balance gives explicit insight on life from a viewpoint that is not male (“You’re rubbish at adultery./ I think you ought to quit./ Trouble is, at fidelity/ You’re also slightly shit”).
A third mezzo, Rowan Hellier (other voice types are available), reminded us of Judith Weir’s brilliance as a song composer in her cycle The Voice of Desire, with Kynoch as the agile pianist. The highlight, in addition to the glittering Tintarella di luna by Olga Neuwirth, was the world premiere of Gorgeous Beasts, a lyrical and urgent mini-drama by Kate Whitley, to a poem by Hollie McNish. It’s a hymn to friendship, particularly that between women united since childhood. It’s un-shy, to say the least, about periods, menopause, prolapse. No good flinching. Bring it on. I hadn’t encountered “cunnilingus” in an art song before. Hellier’s performance captivated, and she carried off Whitley’s demanding work – and the rest of the programme – with wit, aplomb and a consistently velvety tone.
The festival – more than 100 events, involving 200 musicians – is available online. Go straight to Sarah Connolly in Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été or Matthew Rose with the Albion Quartet in Barber’s Dover Beach. Listen, too, to the tenor Joshua Stewart, with pianist Deirdre Brenner. They performed, among other American repertoire, Songs of Love and Justice, settings of Martin Luther King Jr by Adolphus Hailstork (b1941). When Stewart uttered “justice” at the top of his considerable and powerful voice, that ringing note may or may not have shaken the rafters of St John the Evangelist church, but it surely rattled the conscience of anyone listening.
The Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals celebrated the American composer Steve Reich’s 85th birthday with four decades of his music and a UK premiere, Traveler’s Prayer, first heard in Amsterdam three days earlier. Currie, the formidable Scottish percussionist, and Reich, one of the most creative musical thinkers alive, have a deep musical kinship that spurred Currie into setting up his own group. Here, except in Quartet (2013), in which he played vibraphone, he was conductor. Tehillim (1981), inhabits a characteristic Reich soundworld of clapped hands, voices and the soft rattle of maracas and crotales, here deftly and beautifully delivered.
The new work, far from pushing forward in familiar, Reich-style pulsation, had a sense of being suspended in midair, an ancient meditation spun out of looping voices, sustained string chords and the low toll of the piano. For four voices and chamber ensemble, it opens with one tenor singing a text from Exodus, the chant traced by viola and cello. All builds slowly, without climax of crisis, second tenor joining, then two sopranos. Some of the sound production was uneven for the voices, but the excellent performers were, without exception, committed and precise. With other settings from Genesis and Psalms, Traveler’s Prayer has a quality of serenity.
In the preface to the score, Reich writes that these biblical verses can apply to travels by air, car or boat, but “they can also be applied to travel from this world to the next”. Wisely, Reich stayed home in America. May he long make magical, musical journeys in his mind for the benefit of us all.
Star ratings (out of five)
Oxford Lieder festival ★★★★
Colin Currie Group ★★★★
The 20th Oxford Lieder festival is available online until 30 November