After Renée Fleming was forced to withdraw due to a family emergency, soprano Sylvia Schwartz stepped in to perform with the Oxford Philomusica on the way to the Vienna Staatsoper. At just two days’ notice, Korngold, Zandonai and Leoncavallo were traded for Puccini, Verdi and Lehár. Although the concert was a sell-out with a long waiting list, many had chosen to refund their tickets. For those who chose to attend, the concert offered an opportunity to see a rising star in a repertoire ranging from 1780–1933.

Sylvia Schwartz © Enrico Nawrath
Sylvia Schwartz
© Enrico Nawrath

The Oxford Philomusica opened the evening with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. The composer described the work as “full of laughter”, although the Philomusica took a more measured approach. Much of their performance was solemn and stately rather than jovial, only lightening up with the bassoon duet. The woodwind suffered problems with blend and intonation which would persist throughout the evening, but the rich yet agile strings helped to compensate. However, the full complement of choirs joined for the maestoso coda with the academic song “Gaudeamus igitur”, bringing the overture to a rousing end.

A trio of Mozart was next on the programme. Although seeming slightly uncomfortable in Mozart’s Laudate Dominum (with the choristers of Christ Church Cathedral Choir taking the soprano part of the chorus; unfortunately, the other chorus parts weren’t covered), the next two arias saw her relax a little. “Non mi dir” (from Don Giovanni) saw her revel in Donna Anna’s passionate affirmation of her love and allowed her to open up her upper register. This part of Schwartz’s voice was a little on the thin side at times, but her dynamic control was certainly impressive (as displayed in “Deh, vieni, non tardar” from The Marriage of Figaro). However, a little more sensitivity from the Philomusica would have been welcome at some points: the ensemble had a tendency to overpower the soprano.

Rossini’s overture to The Barber of Seville saw bright, lively playing from the Philomusica, tainted only by the horns often dragging behind the beat and some rather approximate woodwind. Schwartz gave an authoritative and lively performance of Rosina’s entrance aria, “Una voce poco fa”, clearly suiting this repertoire more than the Mozart.

The Philomusica strings maintained a lightness throughout the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, with Marios Papadopoulos’ subtle rubato conveying a sense of yearning without excess sentimentality. Unfortunately, Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi worked less well: Schwartz and the Philomusica never felt quite in sync with one another, clearly noticeable in an aria of such lyrical simplicity.

Verdi’s “Va pensiero” from Nabucco saw all three choirs join together. Marios Papadopoulos led a vigorous performance, easing off for a broader third stanza. Despite the top-heavy numbers, the men’s parts weren’t overpowered and the singers blended well.

Concertmaster Tamás András opened Richard Strauss’ “Morgen” with a serene solo over a bed of hushed strings, but Schwartz appeared ill at ease with Strauss’ tranquil vision of love. However, she embraced the fiery character of the seductive Spanish-inflected verses in Lehár’s “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß”, letting loose in the top Bs at the end.

“Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” from Verdi’s La Traviata brought the choirs together once more, and saw Schwartz joined by tenor Stephen Aviss and two men from the Choir of The Queen’s College. Appropriately preceded by the serving of champagne flutes, the duet saw all the musicians embrace the vivacious mood of this light-hearted drinking song. Papadopoulos led the singers and the Philomusica in an ebullient performance, and Schwartz shone as a coy Violetta.

Although certain moments may have saw a few lapses in Schwartz’s technical control, this was more than forgivable given the circumstances. An appreciative audience called for an encore of “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici”, bringing the evening to a good-humoured end.

***11