Oxford Lieder Festival: Goethe Lieder by Schubert and Wolf

Concert review

22 October 2013 4 stars

Sophie Bevan

This concert marked a milestone event: the end of a three year undertaking to record the first complete set of Hugo Wolf’s songs (including twenty-two premiere recordings). The project was brought to a close with the Festival’s third and final instalment of the composer’s Goethe-Lieder (performed over the space of five days). Many of the final nineteen songs are settings of lesser-known texts from Goethe’s Westöstlicher Divan. However, the end of the cycle (as with its opening songs) saw Wolf pose a challenge to the past by choosing texts famously set by other Lieder composers. It was entirely appropriate, then, to begin the concert with some Schubert settings of Goethe (with Wolf’s treatments of ‘Ganymed’ and the Suleika tale coming in the second half).

Schubert’s 1815 song ‘Der Gott und die Bajadere’ opened the evening. Linked to the Wolf through its references to Eastern customs, soprano Sophie Bevan gave a moving performance of this heartbreakingly simple strophic setting (with baritone John Chest and bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu providing the male dialogue). In the Schubert songs and throughout the evening, Bevan engaged with the text on a deep level and displayed a finely tuned sensitivity for emotional nuance. Although her upper notes may have lacked the same fullness as her middle range and there were a couple of flat-ward slips, the sheer beauty of sound meant that she was a joy to listen to. Her creamy tone was particularly suited to ‘Ganymed’, blossoming in the final verse as the shepherd was welcomed into heaven.

Jonathan Lemalu took to the stage for the first few songs of this selection of the Goethe-Lieder. After a lingering, sympathetic performance of ‘Phänomen’, the cycle continued with songs exploring weinseligkeit (wine-induced rapture). Lemalu’s voice had wonderful depth and resonance; at times I felt the diction could have been a little clearer, but this was not helped by the volume of the piano (which didn’t really need its lid fully open, frequently overpowering the performers). Anyhow, pianist Sholto Kynoch managed to capture the acerbic humour of these six songs, from the throwaway postlude of ‘Ob der Koran von Ewigkeit sei?’ to the blurry intoxication at the end of ‘Sie haben wegen der Trunkenheit’. These songs also saw John Chest’s first appearance. Although he displayed a strong and focused sound, he didn’t connect with the texts to the same level as the other singers. However, given that he had only been booked for the concert approximately two weeks ago (with original artist Andrew Kennedy indisposed, and substitute Mark Wilde dropping out as well), this was completely understandable.

Chest did show more expressive range in the second half with the songs from the ‘Book of Suleika’. This part of the Westöstlicher Divan relates to Goethe’s affair with Marianne Willemer, with the poet immortalising his lover as Suleika and himself as Hatem. The songs are closely linked: not only does Goethe pair the poems as parts of a dialogue between the lovers, but Wolf further intertwines them through motivic connections. Chest’s Hatem was earnest and authoritative; Bevan’s Suleika beguiling and impassioned. Unfortunately, the tumultuous emotions of ‘Locken, haltet mich gefangen’ saw Chest lose this engagement with the text. Both singers began to tire throughout these songs, with a couple of voice cracks and unpolished ends of phrases.

The final three songs of the Goethe-Lieder are settings of the poet’s refractions of Greek myth and consideration of man’s insignificance. Jonathan Lemalu’s Prometheus united simmering fury with a more vulnerable element to the character, deserving of sympathy. My chief problem with the interpretation was one of tempo: instead of an overall poetic conception, the pulse was constantly pulled about. This was not the case in Sophie Bevan’s blissful performance of ‘Ganymed’: there was a sense of spaciousness throughout, allowing her to indulge in Wolf’s languorous and yearning writing. ‘Grenzen der Menschheit’ closed the concert; unfortunately, the audience were rather restless by this point. Jonathan Lemalu gave a thoughtful but firm performance of this musing on human condition, bringing the monumental project to a close in a suitably weighty fashion.

By Katy Wright


Related articles:

Opera Review: Gerald Finley in Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera
Concert Review: Kurtag's Kafka Fragments at the Wigmore Hall
Concert Review: The Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Proms in 2009 in Bartok