As the finale to The Schubert Project, which has featured a starry cast performing in a wide variety of concerts over two days at Kings Place, this evening’s concert was lovely taster of the festival’s older brother, which is taking place in Oxford over the next few weeks. We were treated to a first half of Schubert Lieder, centered around one of the most traumatic periods in the composer’s life, the year 1824.

Robert Murray © Sussie Ahlberg
Robert Murray
© Sussie Ahlberg

Shared between a star studded quartet, featuring Mary Bevan, up-and-coming mezzo soprano Rozanna Madylus, Robert Murray and Roderick Williams, all accompanied by festival director Sholto Kynoch, the generally dark and stormy set of songs were headed up by tenor Robert Murray, who provided a yearning and atmospheric performance of Die Goetter Griechenlands. Murray’s easy high register perfectly matched the singing piano line. Mary Bevan followed with two of Schubert’s more wistful and elusive love songs. Lachen and Weinen, which describes the rapid mood swings of a young lover, was performed with quite a serious manner and I felt could have been enhanced by a whimsical character, however Bevan’s control during the quiet sections of Dass sie hier gewesen was impressive. 

The Venetian gondolier song Gondelfahrer was taken by Rozanna Madylus, who seemed a little out of her depth and didn’t quite capture the magic sonourous texture. She seemed more engaged in Auflösung, where Schubert uses almost Wagnerian harmony and orchestral textures in the piano part to evoke an apocalyptic vision, brought to life by pianist Sholto Kynoch, who unfortunately overpowered Madylus on occasion. The partner to Auflösung is Der Sieg, a pure and hopeful description of the afterlife, which was sung by Roderick Williams with assurance and certainty. This atmosphere was retained by Murray as he treated us to two of Schubert’s more spiritual lieder. Im Abendrot uses text written by obscure Pomeranian schoolmaster Karl Lappe and is a mysterious evocation of the sunset. Abendstern is an allegorical representation of Schubert’s alienation from society, symbolized by the evening star. Murray’s use of vocal colour and beautiful control combined to create a very honest impression.

Roderick Williams had the final word with Wandrers Nachtlied II, a contemplative Goethe setting, before the singers all joined forces in Gebet, a vocal quartet which showcased all four singers in solo sections while also reveling in a glorious blended sound when in chorus, which was a real treat.

The second half of the evening was dedicated to Schubert’s Octet in F, played by principals from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. In 1824, Count Ferdinand Troyer, a fine amateur clarinettist, requested a follow up to Beethoven’s popular Septet and Schubert kindly obliged with this six movement hour long masterpiece. Adding a second violin to Beethoven’s line up of clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass, the structure includes a long introduction to the first movement, a scherzo and a minuet and an extended set of variations based on a duet from his comic opera Die Freunde von Salamanka, which features each of the instruments in solo roles.

The players of the OAE are renowned for their engaging and lively performances on period instruments and this was no different. Every member of the group was completely involved with the music and the interaction between the players was wonderful to watch. The dynamic contrast and rhythmic vitality of their playing was also a complete joy. The Octet is a whirlwind of stylistic, harmonic and melodic colour and this was managed with aplomb. If I was being picky, a couple of the modulations were a little fluffy and could have had more drama, but the overall effect of this wonderfully vibrant piece was brought to life by the warm and stylish playing of the OAE.