The Holywell Music Room in Oxford, with its bright and reverberant sound, was purpose-built as a concert hall, and opened in 1748. To hear four experienced and top-class singers last night, all of whom were able to work the specifics of this unique and historic room, to sing to it and use it as their instrument, was sheer joy.

Sussie Ahlburg
Sussie Ahlburg

The rapturous manner in which the capacity audience would respond to the singers at the end of the evening did take me by surprise. These listeners, having sat attentively and silently throughout, showed their appreciation with the kind of foot-stamping you might hear emanating from a rickety wooden non-league football stand. It echoed round the room. "Very Oxford," I was told.

The Oxford Lieder Festival is now in its ninth year. It has gradually grown to nearly forty events, not just concerts but educational and social events too, and runs for 16 days. The organizers have evidently performed a miracle in developing an informed and enthusiastic audience for Lieder. In doing so they have not just emulated what Graham Johnson did at the Wigmore Hall in the 1980's and 1990's, but have arguably surpassed it.

The Oxford Lieder team are extremely thorough. This was the second of two evenings on which a rarely performed masterpiece was sung: the entire canon of Hugo Wolf’s settings of poems by the Swabian poet Eduard Mörike. The Festival team are also diligent and dedicated in their efforts to prepare and guide the audience towards the particular delights of such unfamiliar repertoire. Not only did the programme book have full texts and translations, it also contained an essay by Lieder guru Richard Stokes. Furthermore, John Warren, a highly characterful speaker, steered the audience through the context in which Mörike wrote. One sentence from him summed it up very elegantly: "I'm SO sorry about all this sadness."

There was, indeed, much sadness and obsession to be worked through in these songs, particularly in the first half. Anna Grevelius (pictured) brought the "nimmersatte Qual" (literally: insatiable torture) of Lebe Wohl (Farewell) vividly to life. Grevelius has a range of vocal colours, and of facial expressions with which she traced the shifting moods expertly. These songs can often start in questioning mode, from which a journey to greater certainty (triumph or despair, take your pick) is charted. Grevelius led the audience through Neue Liebe quite mesmerisingly.

Stephan Loges, a former member of the Kreuzchor in Dresden - hatchery for some of the finest Lieder singers from earlier generations such as Peter Schreier and Olaf Bär - is an authentic and very fine Lieder singer indeed, who, fortunately for audiences in England, has made his home here. He sketched the anguished visions of two the Peregrina songs particularly well. He also brought proceedings to a hilarious close with a vivid performance of the comic song "Abschied," in which a critic who takes an artist to task for the size of his nose gets booted down a staircase. Grevelius and Loges sang completely from memory and built tremendous rapport with the audience.

The two English singers, James Gilchrist and Sophie Daneman, working with printed music, also charted the shifting moods with great assurance and pathos. Daneman was particularly effective as the mood gradually lightened (some astute programme-building here). Erstes Liebeslied is a song made of very dark materials - and in Richard Stokes' view sexual innuendo too. Daneman gave a vivid and communicative performance. She also dealt cleverly with the celebratory mood of Zum Neuen Jahr.

James Gilchrist brought all his experience as a Bach evangelist to bear on Gebet (Prayer). In the very different song Der Jäger (The Huntsman), a tricky narrative involving gunshots, several thunderstorms and much brooding "Schmollen und Grollen, he proved himself to be a highly accomplished storyteller.

The concert had opened with three Wolf songs from the young, bright-toned soprano Raphaella Papadakis. Her range of vocal colour in word-painting, and in particular of verbs such as "kosen" (cuddle), "weinen" (cry) was impressive.

The skilful and sensitive accompanist throughout was Sholto Kynoch. Wolf songs often end with a piano postlude, and it was noticeable that the attention of the audience invariably held undimished, right through to the end. Kynoch's performance was clearly the result of a deep process of study of every contour of these very demanding songs.

The Oxford Lieder Festival is a growing force. It was announced last night that the Festival's search for syndicate members to finance a recording of the two Wolf/Mörike evenings had just reached its target of forty subscribers. More subscribers are now being actively sought for future recording projects.

With concerts like this, the Festival’s reputation can only grow.

The Oxford Lieder Festival runs until October 30th and details can be found here.