When I was a student, music in Oxford was more about private study than public performance. The occasional star pianist/violinist/cellist passed through – and of course there were the choirs, from which a choral scholar might emerge for a shy stab at Die schöne Müllerin. But there was nothing like the Oxford Liederfest, the great celebration of art-song that now runs through two weeks in October with a programme so packed, so cleverly organised, and so distinguished that it’s come to rank among the major fixtures of its kind in Europe.
There is always an ambitious theme – past years have ploughed through the complete songs of Schubert and Schumann – and this time it was Mahler, whose song output isn’t extensive enough to fill a fortnight but was accordingly bulked out with works by his contemporaries in Vienna and elsewhere.
Most people think of Mahler as a symphonist, and the nine and a half he left us seem to dominate orchestral repertoire these days (without escape). But to a large extent they’re symphonies made out of songs, incorporating voices or material once intended for a voice. Sometimes these songs have a peculiarly childlike innocence. Often they’re death-fixated (Mahler was a Jewish convert to Catholicism, although his actual belief was questionable). Typically they are saturated with neurosis and the defining products of the end-of-empire culture that was Vienna circa 1900: hothouse of the new but paradoxically nostalgic for the old.
The Liederfest gave due consideration to all this in study days and classes. But the concerts were where Mahler’s world was truly recreated.
Among the younger ones, I was impressed by two strong, grounded baritones, James Atkinson and Michael Mofidian, and a tenor, Joel Williams, who needs to sacrifice some of the beauty of his sound in the interests of expression but is clearly promising. Among the more established was the stately grandeur of Swedish mezzo Maria Forsström, who paired her Mahler with austere Sibelian ballads about goings-on in dark woods.
But my best experience was the unexpected one of a Dutch baritone, Thomas Oliemans, who flew in to replace somebody else at short notice. I scarcely knew of him, but he’s exceptional: a singer who can really sell a song and give it physical dimension. That he didn’t have the top notes Mahler asks for hardly mattered: not many baritones do. And his pianist Malcolm Martineau drew orchestras of colours from the keyboard, with immaculate finesse. A concert in a thousand.
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