If there were awards for making a virtue out of necessity, then Oxford Lieder would surely be in the running for the top prize.
Having successfully put its main October festival online last year, with events being livestreamed from various Oxford venues, organisers recently followed up with an online Weekend of Song, which followed the same winning format and was, quite simply, glorious.
The theme, Winter Into Spring, offered exactly the mood boost we all need right now.
“Ms Williams’ rich, velvety smooth voice was perfectly complemented by sensitive piano accompaniment by festival director Sholto Kynoch”
Spread across the two days was the kind of packed and varied programme we’ve come to expect from Oxford Lieder, from recitals to talks, study sessions and artist Q&As, with the usual mix of established stars and emerging talent, all filmed live at the Holywell Music Room and all introduced with friendly and informative commentary by BBC Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny.
A highlight of Saturday’s events was the recital by rising star Nardus Williams, a singer I first came across as the soprano soloist in Messiah with the Orchestra of St John’s a few years ago and who I sensed at the time was destined for greater things.
Currently a Harewood Artist at English National Opera, with whom she sang the role of Mimi in the company’s ingenious drive-in La Boheme at Alexandra Palace last year, she made her Oxford Lieder debut as an emerging artist in October and returned for this weekend mini-festival to perform songs by Purcell, Brahms and Walton.
This programme proved a perfect vehicle for her vocal and dramatic agility, from the joyous ‘Hallelujah!’ in Purcell’s Evening Prayer to the range of emotions in Brahms’ Songs, Op.57, from passionate to reflective, all underpinned by the song cycle’s sense of hopeless longing. In Walton’s song cycle A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table, she again captured the different sentiments, from the exuberant to the contemplative.
This was a sublime performance, with Ms Williams’ rich, velvety smooth voice perfectly complemented by sensitive piano accompaniment by festival director Sholto Kynoch.
The Saturday evening recital featured the much-anticipated appearance by German baritone Dietrich Henschel, who had been so determined to perform Schubert’s Winterreise at the Holywell that he went through the required ten-day quarantine to do so.
With Sholto Kynoch once again providing sympathetic support from the piano, Henschel imbued the work with the emotional intensity it requires, reflecting the anguish of the narrator as he wanders forlornly and increasingly wretchedly through the bleak winter landscape.
“Ailish Tynan’s lovely rich, expressive voice, combined with her infectious energy and passion, were irresistible”
Occasionally Henschel’s voice seemed a little insecure, particularly at the extremes of his register, but his versatility and range of tonal colours more than compensated in a performance that was a masterpiece of storytelling.
Providing a warm-up to the main act was soprano Anna Cavaliero, another talented emerging artist, whose performances of Schubert’s An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht and Der Winterabend were gloriously and expressively sung.
And so from winter to spring. The festival finale brought a burst of joyfulness and optimism as soprano Ailish Tynan – a late replacement for Tara Erraught – was joined by pianist Iain Burnside for a recital of songs by Stanford, Dunhill and Schubert.
Ms Tynan’s lovely rich, expressive voice, combined with her infectious energy and passion, were irresistible, with Schubert’s famous The Trout being a particular highlight. The tour de force, though, was the final number, The Shepherd on the Rock, in which a shepherd boy contemplates the arrival of spring. In this Ms Tynan and Mr Burnside were joined by clarinettist Julian Bliss, who provided exquisite, at times dreamy, accompaniment.
Live performances will always be the ultimate way to enjoy music, but there’s a lot to be said for digital performances. Sitting at my laptop, watching one glorious performance after another, each a masterclass in artistry and musicality, with my notebook handy and coffee and snacks on the go, felt like the very definition of indulgence.
Best of all, the recitals are all available to watch again for a limited period, which I certainly intend to do – if only to absorb some of Ailish Tynan’s joie de vivre!
The Oxford Lieder Weekend of Song is available on demand until 21st March. Book tickets online at www.oxfordlieder.co.uk or phone 01865 591276.