Oxford’s RPS award-winning Lieder Festival is focussing this year on all the songs of Robert Schumann, with several of the fine songs of his wife Clara. The first Wednesday featured both her music and her piano. David Owen Norris, Ben Johnson and Bryony Williams were the musicians but “Clara’s Piano” (as the recital was titled) stood centre stage in a double sense. It was the only participant to whom we were introduced, by Owen Norris, who explained that the purchaser recorded that he bought it “from a woman called Clara Schumann”. The piano’s case also bore the legend “Weick, Dresden” – so since Clara’s uncle was the maker, the provenance seems secure. The important thing was the persuasive sound, warm, rounded, and individual.

Sholto Kynoch © Robert Piwko
Sholto Kynoch
© Robert Piwko

The programme looked back-to-front, opening with one of the great glories of the song cycle repertoire, Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.39, thence via a group of Clara’s songs to her husband’s Four Duets Op.78, closing with seven songs of Sterndale Bennett, though not only on the grounds that he was a drinking buddy of Robert’s. Oddly enough this progress from the sublime to the homespun worked. Johnson’s tenor was well suited to the lyrical intensity of the Liederkreis, and Bryony Williams’s contributions were almost as fine. Owen Norris was a subtle and responsive accompanist, and drew some exquisite colours from the vintage instrument. He also offered a pertinent and amusing commentary, but not too much – the music was kept in focus. This was just the sort of occasion that looks a bit of a hybrid, but works in festivals with devoted audiences. Sterndale Bennett was a charming new acquaintance for many, and Clara’s setting of Heine’s ballad Die Lorelei seemed almost worthy to stand beside Liszt’s famous version. The duets hit just the right mood of 19th-century domestic entertainment.

The Festival has quite a range of singers, new and emerging artists, established international figures, and what we could call world-class veterans. With fifty years of professional singing at the highest level, Dame Felicity Lott can claim to be among the latter group. Her lunchtime recital with Eugene Asti was a sell-out, and it was clear from the warm reception as she walked on that she is still a much-loved artist. The summer bloom of the voice has now been replaced by autumnal colours, but that is often to be welcomed in Lieder, not least Schumann’s more melancholic examples of the song deep in sorrow, as Heine’s Wehmut (Sadness) has it. Above all her artistry is quite intact.

Dame Felicity Lott © Christina Raphaelle
Dame Felicity Lott
© Christina Raphaelle

Felicity Lott’s sense of communion with her audience is remarkable - ‘Flott’ must be the only artist universally known by an affectionate contraction of her name. This intimacy served the first part of her recital especially well, making Schumann’s Six Songs Op.107 seem less elusive than usual, and again programming some charming examples of Clara’s songs. Of those Warum willst du Andre fragen? (Why Enquire of Others?) drew a collective sigh of appreciation. Oxford’s two-week long festival frequently offers a chance to hear one of the great song cycles twice, and so it was that the Liederkreis Op.39 closed this one, (and Ben Johnson who sang it earlier was among the appreciative audience). Lott might be forgiven for adjusting tempi to help marshal her resources, but no; the exquisite opening song Im der Fremde (In a Foreign Land) was given at a daringly broad speed, and the skilful control of line enhanced the rapt mood. That control later faltered briefly in the first stanza of the equally slow and demanding Mondnacht (Moonlight). The mood was soon restored for the rest of the song and indeed the cycle, the aforementioned Wehmut a particular success.

The Oxford Lieder Festival is of course dominated by Lieder recitals but also offers quite a lot more. There are related instrumental offerings from pianists and chamber groups, choral contributions, masterclasses, talks from academics and practitioners, films and dramatic offerings. And there is usually a chance to hear some obscure work of the featured composer, as there was here. The second week saw six soloists and Sholto Kynoch, pianist and artistic director of the festival, perform the original piano-accompanied cantata Der Rose Pilgerfahrt (The Pilgrimage of the Rose). This 1851 setting of a fairy-tale text was once popular, but is now even more neglected than most late Schumann. Its central European folksiness has faded, but once enchanted Schumann and his contemporaries. The version for orchestra is sometimes heard, but it was this original which the composer always preferred. It is quite a rarity, ideal for a festival. And in that festival way, baritone Wolfgang Holzmair, in town for his recital and some masterclasses, took his usual seat at the top of the small hall. The eminent became the expectant.

Christina Gansch © Kartal Karagedik
Christina Gansch
© Kartal Karagedik

The work’s inclusion was the suggestion of the distinguished bass Robert Holl, who sang the Gravedigger and even conducted the choruses. He also sang and recited four items in the brief and largely unnecessary first ‘half’. The other five soloists were exquisitely led by the eponymous Rose of soprano Christina Gansch, along with the tenor narration of Ben Johnson. Bethan Langford’s gorgeous mezzo made some superb contributions as well as filling in with the chorus; even Mark Stone, luxury casting for the small role of the Miller, gamely added his baritone to the small choir. The sense of mutual discovery was palpable, as was the audience’s engagement with the musical charm and the pathos of the unfolding tale. The hero was pianist Sholto Kynoch. The work is through composed, and not many pieces require the artist to play for around 70 minutes non-stop (even in Winterreise you can pause between songs). But here he has to evoke the prelapsarian settings of woodland and valley, the folk-tale events of funeral and wedding, and the evolution of a rose from flower to human to motherhood, death and a return to roseate glory in ‘Heaven’s heights’. For many this was an unexpected highlight of the festival. And as Artistic Director, Kynoch has lined up a further treat for song-lovers next October, when the Oxford Lieder Festival turns to Mahler and fin-de-siècle Vienna.