The Oxford Lieder Festival entered its second week by welcoming Sir Thomas Allen, one of the festival's patrons, to the University Church for a programme of French Song.
Accompanied by Roger Vignoles, Allen produced intelligent, suave and finely-nuanced intepretations of songs by Duparc, Fauré and Ravel which, in less masterly hands, often achieve only a fraction of the effect. For those who also made the short walk to New College's Ante-Chapel, there followed a concert of late-night Messiaen featuring Gweneth Ann Jeffers and Simon Lepper in Poèmes pour Mi and, as a bonus, Martin Sturfält in three numbers from the Vingt regards sur l'Enfant Jésus. Allen also ceded the platform to allow mezzo soprano Catherine Hopper her 'fifteen minutes of fame,' accompanied by John Reid.
The virtues of giving a younger artist an opportunity to perform in front of a well-disposed audience in a packed venue were clearly evident to Allen who gave a brief, magnanimous speech of support of the new generation of singers and accompanists, with whom he is now more and more involved. Luckily Hopper lived up to her billing and although her bright mezzo required a little adjustment after the refined shades of Allen's matured baritone, she came across as a generous performer with a natural aptitude for the French repertory. Reid proved every bit as idiomatic in his accompaniments and, after 'Mandoline' and 'Le secret' by Fauré, their brief appearance culminated in a strongly characterised and emotionally involving account of Debussy's Chansons de bilitis.
It was Allen's concert, though, and he showed what extra subtlety a life-time's performance can bring to this elusive repertoire. There were a couple of occasions where the voice showed itself to have lost a little sheen and power – in the lower register in particular – but it's still in wonderful shape and in its mellow beauty is as seductive as ever. Allen also showed how he can still unleash some thrilling notes high in its register, as at the opening of Poulenc's 'Le tombeau' (from Cinq poèmes de Ronsard) that he sang as an encore.
There was no shortage of declamatory passion in the Wagnerian sweep of the four Duparc settings that opened the concert, culminating in an ardent 'L'invitation au voyage'. Vignoles despatched the expansive piano parts with power and virtuosity and, in Fauré's L'horizon chimerique that followed, he painted the scenes with expert colours. Allen, too, achieved the perfect balance of quiet emotion and subtlety in Fauré's delicate settings. The two performers, if anything, were even better in the Ravel of the second half. Allen's incomparable skills as an actor made for a touching and entertaining performance of the three songs Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. And he had the audience hanging on his every word in the remarkable Histoires naturelles, which followed, Vignoles delighting in the ingenuity and brilliance of Ravel's piano writing.
The small Ante-Chapel of New College provided a predictably evocative setting for some French music of a very different sort in the evening's second concert. Gweneth Ann Jeffers has made something of a speciality of Messiaen's powerful, idiosyncratic Poèmes pour mi, the composer's setting of his own pungently devout religious verses. It doesn't take long to see that Jeffers suits the highly-strung and visionary emotionalism of this music perfectly. Although she launched herself with total commitment into the forceful declamation that features in several of the songs – including the opening 'Action de graces' – her rather unidiomatic French occasionally undermined the sense of drama. However, elsewhere her big voice filled the space magnificently and, accompanied with enormous skill and precision by Lepper, she was often spellbinding.
It was left to Swedish pianist Martin Sturfält to maintain the spell in his performances of 'Noël', 'Regard des Anges' and 'Le baiser de l'Enfant Jésus' from the Vingt Regards. While he had full measure of the enormous technical demands Messiaen makes on the performer, producing playing of powerful virtuosity when required, it was the sheer concentration he displayed in a deeply considered performance of 'Le baiser de l'Enfant Jésus', some of the composer's most beautiful and movingly contemplative music, that proved the the highlight.
By Hugo Shirley
The Oxford Lieder Festival continues until in various venues around the city until 25 October. More details can be found on the festival website.
See also our interview with Sholto Kynoch Artistic Director of the Oxford Lieder Festival here.