There is something deliciously perverse about opening the final recital of a 16-day, 80-event song festival with an opera overture, but Sholto Kynoch, pianist, artistic director and programming mastermind behind Oxford Lieder, has an eye – and ear – for the unexpected. Alexander Zemlinsky's four-hand piano arrangement of the Zauberflöte overture bustled along with crisp phrasing, a deft curtain-raiser to a cleverly constructed recital exploring the “dangerous liaisons” of love. From flirting and fear of rejection we advanced to seduction and entrapment by birdcatchers, fishermen and loreleis before, in a selection from Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch, love soured.

Sholto Kynoch, Louise Alder and Nikolay Borchev © Mark Pullinger
Sholto Kynoch, Louise Alder and Nikolay Borchev
© Mark Pullinger

At SJE Arts in St John the Evangelist Church, Louise Alder and Nikolay Borchev were our two protagonists, each taking a set of songs in a first half which juxtaposed Mozart with Schubert. Alder is an accomplished recitalist, commanding the stage with dramatic intensity and real wit. Her clarity of tone, excellent diction and aching top notes made for a convincing lover, yearning, yet easily pricked by jealousy. Borchev's wiry baritone was a little dry, but he made for a happy-go-lucky Papageno, charming the birds from the aisles, and a bluff fisherman, muddying the waters of Die Forelle to make his catch. The sequence of songs worked wonderfully here. Dramatically, for example, the woman's exasperation at discovering her lover cheating on her (Schubert's Die Männer sind méchant) leads to her burning his letters (Mozart's Als Luise die Briefe). But it was ingenious musically too, Kynoch highlighting the similarities between Schubert and Mozart by eliding from Heidenröslein to the little duet for Pamina and Papageno (Könnte jeder brave Mann) before the Act 1 Zauberflöte finale. It's uncanny. Try it.

The second half saw the introduction of other composers as love hit choppy waters. Nikolai Medtner's Meeresstille produced gorgeous playing by Kynoch, who also relished the virtuosic piano writing in Franz Liszt's Die Lorelei. There were more duets here (Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms), as the woman deceives the man, before the final sequence. These Wolf vignettes, often alternating singers, presented a dramatic dialogue: the woman has longed for a musician as a lover, only to discover his skills as a violinist are pretty basic (cue the hilariously clumsy piano postlude); she mocks his lack of height; he declares he loves her 25 hours a day, but she rejects his serenade (“I'd sooner hear a donkey!”). Finally, she taunts him by bitchily reeling off – Leporello-like – a list of her lovers, including ten alone in Castiglione. The expressions on the singers' faces – particularly when reacting to the other's performance – were frequently very funny.

Pamina and Papageno's duet “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” was an obvious encore, affectionately sung, followed by the warm embrace of Robert Schumann's So wahr die Sonne scheinet, the final song from his and Clara's Liebesfrühling.

Konstantin Krimmel and Doriana Tchakarova in Holywell Music Room © Mark Pullinger
Konstantin Krimmel and Doriana Tchakarova in Holywell Music Room
© Mark Pullinger

Earlier in the day, German-Romanian baritone Konstantin Krimmel took the Oxford audience on a journey back into German folklore, including settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, some of which Mahler used in his Second and Third Symphonies. Krimmel was a recent prizewinner at Heidelberger Frühling, an appropriate link given that the Wunderhorn texts were collected there by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano at the start of the 19th century.

Krimmel has an interesting baritone, very dark in colour but ringing heroically at the top. He is a vivid actor too, illustrating strongly dramatic accounts of Carl Loewe's ballads, especially Herr Oluf (despite weaker low notes) where the knight resists the attempts of the Erlkönig's daughter to seduce him into dancing, with fatal consequences. Doriana Tchakarova painted a lively canvas for Krimmel, an impressive partnership. The five Mahler songs were bursting with character, especially Anthony of Padua's engaging sermon to the fish, as was the cheeky encore, Charles Wolseley's The Green-Eyed Dragon.

The Holywell Music Room is compact enough for singers to make eye contact with everyone in the audience. Krimmel also engaged in a few spoken introductions. Just as welcome is the initiative by Oxford Lieder to display the texts (German with English translations) on screens behind the singers, negating the effect of singers performing to an audience of heads buried in programmes.

****1