Schubert in 1824: his Lieder and Octet

Franz Schubert
The complete songs of 1824
Octet in F

Mary Bevan soprano
Rozanna Madylus mezzo-soprano
Robert Murray tenor
Roderick Williams baritone
Sholto Kynoch piano
Principle players of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Hall 1, Kings Place

Schubert’s music has the power to transport you. If I close my eyes, it can take me away from my present place.

This was certainly needed for the London preview of the 2014 Oxford Lieder Festival hosted at Kings Place. There may be ample legroom, comfortable seats, snazzy lighting and a stage giving every audience member a good view, but its atmosphere is devoid of personality. Modern lighting and soloists dressed in ball gowns were unfitting for Schubert’s lieder. This was music written for a private, domestic setting. Transplanting them to a concert hall created a distance and formality.

Nevertheless, the four soloists were adamant that they would  reach their audience. Opening the concert with Die Götter Griechenlands, tenor Robert Murray gave a concentrated performance. After his powerful questioning “wo bist du?” (where are you?), he drew back for a tentative ‘kehre wieder’ (turn back again). This contrast between strong and hesitant was expertly balanced. It was not melodramatic but a convincing outpouring of emotion.

Meanwhile, baritone Roderick Williams captured nobility in Der Sieg with his luxurious voice. His resonant low notes on the words “in Todeschlaf” (into the sleep of death) were delightful. Williams filled the hall comfortably. He loved the sound of his own voice and he wanted his audience to love it too.

That it was easy to forget the presence of pianist Sholto Kynoch, attests to his skill. Even with the rocky accompaniment in Auflösungn Kynoch never overpowered mezzo Rozanna Madylus, acting instead as a natural extension of her expression.

Pianist Sholto Kynoch. Founder and artistic director of the Oxford Lieder Festival.

Pianist Sholto Kynoch. Founder and artistic director of the Oxford Lieder Festival.

All four soloists squeezed extremes of expression into these compact songs. It was difficult not to miss anything, especially for non-German speakers such as myself switching between watching the performers and reading the translations. It was this that prevented Schubert’s lieder from transporting me. The poetry is a vital part in these songs, but reading the translation meant I remained firmly rooted in this dull concert hall.

This was not a problem with Schubert’s Octet. I would not be neglecting an important part of its meaning in closing my eyes, though the pleasing interaction between the players from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was not to be missed. Though this is not an established ensemble, they played together sensitively. Every glimpse of melody as it passed between instruments was carefully brought out, and it was especially rewarding when it came from middle of the texture, in the viola or cello. But it was Chi-Chi Nwanoku on the double bass who carried the ensemble. She enjoyed adding another layer of resonance. The accompaniment never became tired but buzzed beneath.

There was a risk that movements three to five – a scherzo, theme and variations, and minuet – might have become tedious: these forms are heavy with repeated sections. The players from the OAE did not attempt to counter this. Rather they progressed naturally through the music, enjoying Schubert’s melodies on every repeat. In the third movement scherzo, the swift soft-loud contrast was playful. The clarinet’s melody was jolly too, though I would have taken it faster so that it could really dance. There was a great feeling of space in these central movements, drawing out all that is beautiful in Schubert’s music.

It was only in the climax of the final movement when some ferocious playing was let loose. But it was brief in comparison to the floating melodies from before. This was a well-earned climax, and left us wanting more. Closing my eyes, I was transported.

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