Kitty Whately- credit Natalie J Watts

Halloween is coming to Oxford early this year as the Oxford Lieder Festival flies in with a fun-filled fortnight set around the theme of magic, myths and death. Tales of Beyond is designed to bewitch and enthrall with a cocktail of music conjuring up spells, ghosts, fairies, pixies, elves, trolls, monsters and other mythical beings.

This year’s stars include Roderick Williams, Kitty Whately, Christoph Prégardien, Daniel Norman, Elin Manahan Thomas, Louise Alder and many more, while renowned French baritone Stéphane Degout, German soprano Dorothea Roschmann and British soprano Carolyn Sampson make their festival debuts.

Louise Alder – credit Gerard Collett

The festival also strays outside Oxford for the first time, with concerts in Wallingford and Witney.

It’s all part of founder Sholto Kynoch’s vision of pushing the boundaries of the festival to broaden its appeal.

“We’re aiming to find new approaches that could be really enticing to our own audience, but also try to bring in new people and have real diversity in the events,” he says. “So even if people hadn’t previously thought it’s for them, hopefully they’ll find that perhaps it is.”

Sholto Kynoch

Some real magic is promised for the Magical Mysteries concert on the first Monday evening, which explores elements of magic in songs by Mozart, Schubert and Loewe, among others.

Sholto is keeping tight-lipped about the exact nature of the real magic, but there will, he says, definitely be a “magical surprise” during the concert. You have been warned!

Elsewhere in the festival, there are plenty of other surprises of the enchanting and supernatural kind. The opening event, Trolls, Myths and Mountains, sets the tone for the festival with an exploration of Nordic gods, Nordic legends and magical landscapes and their influence on the music of Edward Grieg, including a performance of his only song cycle, ‘Haugtussa’.

Elin Manahan Thomas

The first evening concert continues the Nordic theme with Grieg’s first Peer Gyntsuite – which includes the famous ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ and ‘Solveig’s Song’ – as well as other songs from Peer Gynt and music by Schubert and Sibelius. 

The concert marks the festival debut of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – and is, in fact, the first time any full symphony orchestra has featured in the festival.

“I’m really chuffed to have that,” Sholto says. “I hope that will be a really thrilling way to begin, and hope we’ll have a packed Town Hall for our opening night.”

Other highlights with magical or ghostly themes include Songs and Dances of Death, which includes Mussorgksy’s song cycle of the same name, as well as Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, Saint-Saens’ Danse macabreand more; The Dopplenganger, a programme of haunting music by Schubert, Mendelssohn and others; Things That Go Bump in the Night, an exploration of Hugo Wolf songs featuring elves, sprites, ghosts and other sinister beings; Fairy Tales, From Stanford to Sondheimand a performance of Beethoven’s The Ghost Trio.

Christoph PrŽgardien Photo Marco Borggreve

Interspersed between these are study days exploring various themes around magic, myths and legends, a magical mystery tour of Pitt Rivers Museum, a guided tour around Holywell Cemetery, Bill Spectre’s famous Oxford ghost trail and family events. 

But it’s not all about magic and ghosts. The opening weekend is devoted largely to study days that pay tribute to two remarkable and often overlooked composers, Carl Loewe and Clara Schumann. 

The Carl Loewe study day on the Saturday marks the 150thanniversary of the composer’s death, while Sunday’s focus on Clara Schumann celebrates the bicentenary of her birth.

Of the two, Loewe is perhaps less well known. 

“People talk about underrated composers and hidden gems and all these kind of clichés, but Loewe really is an underrated composer,” Sholto says. “He wrote around 500 songs, and some of them are really magical. His text settings are absolutely up there with the best of them, so there are some really exciting ballads and storytelling that all fits very nicely with our overall theme.”

Kitty Whately – credit Natalie J Watts

The second week also strays from the magic theme. A highlight is Roderick Williams’ festival residency, which sees him performing Schubert’s best-loved song cycles – Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise and Schwanengesang– in English translations, as well as giving a masterclass and a talk. The latter, in conversation with Philip Bullock, takes place over coffee and pastries in the Ashmolean’s rooftop restaurant.

There’s more action at the Ashmolean in A Night at the Museum, which features songs of classical mythology performed in the museum’s Randolph Sculpture Gallery.

The Young Artist Platform continues to be an important strand of the festival, and Sholto is delighted that all six of the 2019 finalists feature in this year’s programme.

“I think all of the finalists are doing something in the festival,” he says. “Some are doing a family concert, some are illustrating study events, and the two winners have showcase recitals. 

“It’s great to have them because they’re all of a caliber that they should be doing stuff for us. We’ve got some of our past winners coming back as well, which is great.”

The Oxford Lieder Festival runs from 11-26 October; visit oxfordlieder.co.uk for full details and booking. 

NICOLA LISLE

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