The Oxford Lieder Festival provides an incredible annual opportunity for song enthusiasts to enjoy performances of a professional standard. This year, the Festival chose to focus solely on the song output of Franz Schubert (1797-1828), a sizeable undertaking given that the prolific composer wrote around 600 lieder in his 31 years. This lunchtime concert in the Holywell Music Room, England’s oldest purpose-built concert hall, featured settings of Schober and Mayrhofer, poets and close friends of Schubert, sung by mezzo-soprano Ciara Hendrick, bass-baritone Maciek O’Shea and pianist and founder of the Lieder Festival Sholto Kynoch.
The programme opened with great bravado, as O’Shea delivered a rousing performance of ‘Der Alpenjager’ (The Alpine Huntsman), in which he captured the proud nature of the Huntsman in both his vocal delivery and stature on the stage. O’Shea commanded the expressive contrasts of Schubert’s narratives very well, reflecting the subtlety of the harmonic shifts in the second verse in his timbre. The song clearly set out two of the main tropes of this program, lost love and the pastoral, which were explored further in ‘Trost’ (Consolation) and ‘Genugsamkeit’ (Simple Needs), among others.
Trost, the second lied in the program, introduced Hendrick with a much more introspective atmosphere, reflecting the relative lightness and sweetness of her tone. Combined with the lilting ‘Ruckweg’ (The Way Back), Hendrick was able to showcase her clarity of timbre, as well as the immense control and power of her higher register. It was this ‘simplicity’ that she brought to perhaps the most arresting moment of the whole concert, the unusually named ‘Pax Vobiscum’ (Peace Be With You).
While Schubert did write 7 masses and several other sacred works, religious allusions as overt as in this lied are quite rare. The hymn-like accompaniment stood in stark contrast to the more typical, flowing figurations of Schubert’s lieder, both played very sensitively by Kynoch. The climax of the song came at its highest point, on the words “Ich liebe dich, du guter Gott!” (I love you, merciful God).
After this highly emotive moment, O’shea’s next two songs, ‘Pilgerweise’ (Pilgrim’s Song) and ‘Jagers Liebeslied’ (Huntaman’s Love Song) were rather lost in the middle of the program. While O’Shea tackled them both with great technical proficiency and energy, some of the exciting characterisation of the earlier songs was lost in the heaviness of the text and sometimes overpowering piano line.
Unlike Hendrick, O’Shea seemed to lack a necessary lightness at some points in his delivery, which was especially noticeable in more whimsical songs like ‘Alte Liebe Rostet Nie’ (Old Love Never Dies). More acting on stage and engagement with the audience would have aided the expressivity of O’Shea’s performance, something that I felt Hendrick brought to her more sombre repertoire in abundance, most notably in the recitative-like section in ‘Abendlied Der Furstin’ (The Princess’s Evening Song).
The final two songs in the program provided the most memorable and exciting moments of the concert. Both farewells — ‘Abschied’ (Farewell) and ‘Schiffers Scheidelied’ (The Sailor’s Song of Farewell) seemed the perfect way for each singer to acknowledge what they had brought to the concert expressively.
Hendrick’s slow-moving and melodically simple ‘Farewell’ summed up the beautiful elegance of her voice, making technically challenging songs sound easy, while O’Shea managed to recapture the dynamism of his earlier songs for the fast-moving, 7-verse finale, leaving the audience energised at the end of a very contrasting program.