The Oxford Lieder Festival is a pleasantly vertical affair. Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, it offers appearances by celebrated performers, thematically coherent mini-festivals, war-horse song cycles, completist sets of opus numbers for the collectors, a master course for apprentice duos, a composer in residence, song composition workshops in local primary schools, and even an 'open-mic' event for adventurous fans. One of the most promising Festival offerings, however, has to be the lunchtime concerts, in which the Holywell Music Room serves as a platform for up-and-coming song practitioners from England’s leading conservatories.
I heard one such lunchtime concert that impressed me not just for the talent of its performers—all students at the Royal Academy of Music—but also for the thoughtfulness of its program. Here was a set of works that was more than the sum of its parts, more than just a list or a well-paced 'mix-tape'. Rather, its constituent songs conversed with each other, departing and then returning to a particular text, theme, or configuration, resulting in a refreshing meta-commentary. The program had an intelligence, and an integrity, all its own.
The performers—soprano Alison Rose, baritone Ross Ramgobin, and pianist Gregory Drott—alternated sets of solo Lieder with groups of Brahms songs for two voices. The first solo set comprised a pair of Goethe poems: the texts alternated, with each presented in two discrete settings, making for an engaging exercise in delayed comparison. Ramgobin presented 'Die wandelnde Glocke', with Schumann's ominously seething take almost a rebuke to Loewe's merry one; Rose set Liszt’s nervous 'Der König in Thule' against Schubert's archaic setting. While the Brahms two-part Lieder threatened to descend into one-note kitsch, Rose and Ramgobin brought a physical ease, chemistry, and gentle humor to the exchanges.
Rose is an Oxford Lieder Festival veteran, having performed in a lunchtime concert two years ago as an undergraduate at the Royal Northern College of Music. She was a commanding presence onstage, able to summon a mature bardic mode for songs like 'Der König in Thule', and a more insouciant (if perhaps not entirely convincingly coquettish) manner for the Brahms. Her tone was rich and assured, and her rendition of Liszt's epic 'Die Loreley' demonstrated not only stamina but an impressive range of colors.
Ramgobin was equally riveting, particularly in the ballads. He managed honourably the unenviable task of shading Brahms's endless variants on the jilted lover. But the standout was surely Liszt's 'Die drei Zigeuner', paired with 'Die Loreley' at the challenging heart of the hour. For this strange work, with its ambiguously positioned narrator, Ramgobin executed Liszt's wild twists and turns with abandon, boldly approaching Sprechstimme in the passages marked 'gesprochen' and 'phlegmatisch'. It is no easy feat for a young singer to withdraw from singing, but Ramgobin was utterly convincing as the entranced onlooker.
'Die drei Zigeuner' also showed pianist Drott in fine form. He took his time with the introduction, allowing the tone clusters that constitute our first 'glimpse' of the three gypsies to collect and hover in the air. His role in Loewe's 'Tom der Reimer' was another highlight, with tinkling bells and murmuring brook rendered lovingly, but never descending into kitsch. The concert concluded with Schumann’s duet 'So wahr die Sonne scheinet', its spare texture and naïve sentiment offset by the novelty of hearing both voices finally united. This is a promising trio of young musicians, and I hope they will continue in their efforts to reinvigorate the lesser-known genre of the two-voiced Lied.