There was a time when serious song recitals seemed like an endangered species. Audiences didn’t want to struggle with the usually French or German texts, and stayed away. But last week the impressive Oxford Lieder Festival, a major fixture of the autumn music season, played to sold-out halls. At least, they sold out for the opening weekend, as people flocked to hear a roster of outstanding singers and accompanists in songs by Robert Schumann.
This year’s festival was wholly given over to the Schumann songs, packaged with talks and workshops. Truly an immersion, it was introduced by probably the finest Lieder singer of his generation, Christian Gerhaher, and settled down to business with a study day devised by the most erudite of all accompanists, Graham Johnson.
Reminiscent of the old Songmakers’ Almanac recitals Johnson used to lead at Wigmore Hall, the study day was a seamless flow of talk and performance that set Schumann’s greatest song cycles – the two Liederkreis, Myrthen, Dichterliebe, Frauenliebe und -leben – in the context of his life. Or more particularly, the context of his battle, through the German courts, to marry Clara Wieck against the wishes of her father.
It’s a well known story. But I hadn’t realised how well the German public knew about it at the time: it was a 19th-century approximation of what happens now with rock stars, with every detail seized on by the press.
That young love triumphed over the parental prohibition didn’t make for a happy ending: Clara’s father wasn’t wrong to be concerned about his daughter marrying a suicidal drunkard. But the anxiously uncertain ardour of their courtship certainly steered Schumann’s choice of texts in all the songs he wrote during the court proceedings – celebrating victory with the Frauenliebe cycle which depicts devoted female love, albeit in a servile way.
The bright and glistening fervour with which mezzo Anna Huntley dipped into the Frauenliebe settings was, for me, the vocal highlight of the study day. And from the weekend overall I won’t forget the sheer class of another mezzo, Sarah Connolly, dueting with soprano Sophie Karthäuser; or baritone Christopher Maltman, fierce with full-on muscular attack in a distinctly macho set of Schumann’s longer, narrative ballads.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection