This was the first concert of Oxford Lieder's new season, and setting the bar pleasingly high for those who will come after was the partnership of tenor John Mark Ainsley, veteran of concert and opera stage alike, and Roger Vignoles, a name synonymous with the highest levels of professionalism in the accompaniment of song. Whilst the famous Dichterliebe was the main attraction, we were also treated to other Heine settings by Brahms and Mendelssohn, in a programme focused on themes of night and dreams.

John Mark Ainsley
John Mark Ainsley

Despite the ethereal subject matter, there was nothing vague or gloopy in the delivery; Ainsley is an active, conversational performer, with a style so assured one might be tempted to call it casual, if it were not so evident that scrupulous preparation had gone into each song. Arms folded over the corner of the piano, or striding out towards the audience, the effect of his performance lent itself well to the intimacy of Oxford's Holywell Music Room, as did the limpid middle register of his voice.

Efforts in recent years to rehabilitate Mendelssohn as a composer of Lieder have borne fruit, and we now hear his works in this genre as more than able to stand up next to those of his contemporaries. Heine once wrote that the composer of song should create melodies 'which find their way into the hearts of the people and disseminate genuine joy'. He would, one imagines, have been quite pleased with Mendelssohn's efforts. Sweet and lyrical, they are also capable of mischief. 'Neue Liebe' captured the furtive scurrying of woodland elves, 'Gruss' the gentle tolling of bells. 'Reiselied' was a particular favourite of mine, taking one of the genre's favourite tropes, the rider at night, only to subvert it in the final stanza, the voice of the oak tree booming: 'What do you want with your foolish dream?' It's a poetical effect clearly relished by both Mendelssohn and the performers this evening. I was also grateful for the inclusion of 'Allnächtlich in Traume seh' ich dich' in this set, which afforded us the rare opportunity to compare it directly with Schumann's setting from Dichterliebe. Brahms too was well represented, with 'Meerfahrt' particularly affecting – a rare glimpse, in this programme at least, of a lover's journey untainted by the torments and tears of most of Heine's other experiences.

It was all excellent preparation to hear Schumann's music, on Heine's supreme canvas of half-recollected dreams and memories. Ainsley inhabited all of the the various states of the 'Poet's Love' – anger, bitterness, resignation, bewilderment – and delineated each with care, whilst maintaining a cogent sequence whereby one memory flowed into the next. At the end of the cycle, the protagonist rails against 'the old, hateful songs' and then falls silent, and it was left to Vignoles to carry us to the finish on the wings of the touching postlude, which he did with faultless musicality and delicacy.

For an encore, we had 'Du bist wie eine Blume', not in Schumann's well-known setting, but Liszt's. Vignoles brought out little flourishes of typically Lisztian melody in the piano part, which seemed to recall the same composer's Liebesträume – how appropriate, to conclude a recital of exquisite love-dreams.

*****