The Oxford Lieder Festival is in its tenth year and its theme this year is Schumann, all of whose 300 plus songs are being sung, along with performances of some of his instrumental music and many songs by other major figures. There are more than a hundred events over its sixteen days, and the Festival launch concert in the Sheldonian Theatre was itself the tenth event of the opening day. The dreaming spires become singing spires every October.

Christian Gerhaher © Jim Rakete | Sony Classical
Christian Gerhaher
© Jim Rakete | Sony Classical

These days, Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber must be the first names on the team sheet for any seriously ambitious international song festival, and they were a prestigious catch for the opening concert. It was a magnificent launch, with an especially challenging programme – certainly so for the performers, but not, as it turned out, for the audience. Dvořák’s Biblical Songs opened their recital, and these ten Czech language Psalm settings encompass all the sorrow, hope and joy found in the genre, although the dominant note in these interpretations was one of supplication. “Hear my Prayer O Lord” was delivered with yearning entreaty by the baritone, and with plenty of detailed support from the pianist; Huber’s bird-like trills were very evocative at “Oh that I had the wings of a dove”. Perhaps a native Czech speaker could have added more textual relish, but the German baritone seemed quite comfortable with the language. Gerhaher brought a score with him but barely glanced at it, although one of its purposes was made clear later on.

Schumann was the main event of course, and Gerhaher closed the recital with a superb performance of that underrated cycle from the composer’s miraculous song year of 1840, the “Kernerlieder”. These “Twelve Poems of Justinus Kerner” are quite different from the lyrical effusions of Dichterliebe or the Liederkreis cycles, darker and wider-ranging, and even harder to sing well. But Gerhaher's mastery of these magnificent settings was everywhere in evidence. He is a consummate Lieder singer, with all the command of line, vocal colour and textual nuance that that requires. But he is also an opera singer, heard in London recently as Pelléas and as Wolfram, and is unafraid of an operatic climax when one is needed. He produced shattering fortes – without compromising his typical beauty of tone - at the melodramatically climactic moments in “Silent Tears”, Huber colluding in the passion with his throbbing accompaniment and eloquent postlude.

At the other end of the dynamic range, the end of the final song was given a diminuendo fade-out of remarkable control as the poet sings of “the fearful dream from which only an angel will wake me”. The clamour for an encore was genuine and deserved, but the programme had been exhausting and generous – ten other Schumann songs were included besides these Kernerlieder. So after just one short encore, we saw what that score was there for. Gerhaher picked it up pointedly and went off for some well earned vocal rest. The duo had given the same programme at Wigmore Hall two days earlier, but it can hardly have surpassed this, perhaps one of the finest recitals ever heard in the Festival.

The Sheldonian has little in the way of noise insulation, so Oxford was able to contribute a few raucous (if poetically distant) intrusions, as some passing freshers celebrated the first Friday night of term just as the opening of the sixth song began “Glorious glass, now you are empty”. The moment was mirrored inside the building a little later when the audience, made a touch bronchial no doubt by those same recent arrivals from around the world, spluttered somewhat ahead of the tenth song’s opening line, “That you are so ill, who then is the cause?” But art should reflect life, above all in a truly great song recital.