What do you put in a programme that closes with Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One who Disappeared? Performances of this great work are not that common in part because it is in Czech, but more because in addition to a tenor and piano, you need a female soloist and a small ensemble of three more females, and these four women sing only for a short period of time in the 35 minute span. There are solutions of course, and pianist Julius Drake and Oxford Lieder Festival director Sholto Kynoch came up with a satisfying one. Start with Janáček’s Ríkadla (Nursery Rhymes) so the female ensemble (now six strong, plus a clarinet) have some more Czech to sing. Follow up with Brahms’ Eight Op.57 Songs, whose sensuality reflects that of the Diary, and then Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs) as a harbinger of the gypsy who ensnares the young man of the Diary.

Dorottya Láng © Shirley Suarez
Dorottya Láng
© Shirley Suarez

The Nursery Rhymes are innocent fun, brief and pithy, a child’s world and a natural world too – nearly as many animals as in The Cunning Little Vixen. The six young singers from the Royal Academy of Music entered into the frivolous whimsy with gusto, enabling us to hear that rare sound in a recital room – suppressed chuckles from the audience. Victoria Samek played the (slightly inessential) clarinet part with relish. Janáček had originally composed eight Nursery Rhymes, later adding ten more and an introduction. Here we had just eight songs which, unless one was an eight year old child in a Moravian schoolroom and double maths is the next lesson, was frankly enough.

More serious matters followed, and Brahms’ 8 Lieder und Gesänge, Op.57, are quite unsuitable for eight-year olds of any country. In Daumer’s erotic verses kisses burn and bosoms heave, and Brahms’ more prudish friends disapproved. Hungarian mezzo-soprano Dorottya Láng nonetheless gave voice to the yearning male protagonist quite unblushingly, but also quite superbly. Hers is a rich instrument especially in its middle register, and she made the wide span of the vocal line sound effortless. The top of the voice was secure and bright, and at times as fierce as the passion of the text. A little more soft singing would have been welcome here and there – the intimate Holywell Music Room is quite small, and you can whisper to the back row. We did hear something of this matching of scale to the venue in the exquisite third song Es träumte mir, ich sei dir teuer (I dreamt I was dear to you) which cast its spell in an ideal dreamlike performance by both singer and accompanist.

If Op.57 was the performance of a highly skilled recitalist on her best Brahmsian lieder behaviour, those musical manners loosened up a bit when she sang the solo version of eight Gypsy Songs that closed the first half. Láng stamped her foot in the fifth song Brauner Bursche führt zum Tanze (The swarthy lad takes his girl to the dance) and in the ensuing Röslein dreie in der Reihe (The three roses) indulged in some rubato that might have tripped up a lesser accompanist. She perfectly caught the ambivalence of its sentiment about bachelorhood, reflected in Brahms’ favourite aperçu “Alas I never married so had to remain a bachelor, thank God”. The Hungarian mezzo made the livelier songs sound like vocal Hungarian Dances, which in a way they are. And if in Op.57 she came across as an artist who has learned her Brahms singing from the best Viennese mentors, she simply sounded born to sing these Gypsy Songs

Toby Spence © Mitch Jenkins
Toby Spence
© Mitch Jenkins

The second half brought more passion and another gypsy in Janáček’s The Diary of One who Disappeared, in which a young man is seduced by a gypsy and eventually must leave his family and embrace a new life. The besotted diarist was tenor Toby Spence, on ringing form for these sometimes strenuous utterances. Janáček revised the score to moderate the demanding tessitura, but it is still a considerable undertaking. If Spence did not quite nail the final two top Cs, he was everywhere else so compelling it hardly mattered. And of course when the gypsy seductress enters in the ninth song, our own Magyar maiden Dorottya Láng walked singing from the back of the room onto the stage, a reminder that this is the work of a great opera composer, and the piece was staged quite early on. Her allure was seductively echoed by a trio of offstage women, three of our sirens from the Royal Academy, grown up rather since their first-half appearance in the nursery. Julius Drake’s torrential postlude capped an evening in which he had been superb throughout. The expert planning and execution of this intriguing programme made yet another memorable night for the Oxford Lieder Festival.

****1