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Oxford Lieder 2020 Review: Song in the Age of Corona

Covid-19 and its pesky restrictions threw a spanner in the Oxford Lieder Festival 2020 works this year, but it didn’t dampen the spirits or the music. The UK’s biggest song festival went online instead, streaming over 40 magnificent recital concerts and events, most of them live and all set in historical surroundings across the city. This year’s theme was Connections Across Time: A Brief History of Song, delivered with a steady stream of concerts, talks, masterclasses and live study events.

The venues included the glorious Radcliffe Observatory, the Huxley Room of the Museum of Natural History (where the Huxley-Wilberforce Debate took place), Broughton Castle, Rycote Chapel as well as festival favourite, the Holywell Room.

The festival line-up included Katie Bray who sang Brahms, Britten and Purcell, accompanied by Hélène Clément on a viola pre-owned by Britten. Bray’s accolades include winner of the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World in 2019. Her singing always packs a visual and musical punch.

Oxford Lieder Festival 2020, review

Oxford Lieder Festival 2020: Tenor James Gilchrist and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny at Broughton Castle

Oxford Lieder veteran James Gilchrist was accompanied by lutenist Elizabeth Kenny from the stately Broughton Castle. There was a glitch with the live-streaming, so I caught up with this splendid recital in the digital viewing room a couple of days later. Lucky me, I can now watch Gilchrist’s enthralling performances again and again until November 1.

Sarah Connolly followed with an evening of Schumann and Mahler, and festival favourite Ian Bostridge served up some divine Schubert, Wolf and Mahler. Other recitals included British soprano Lucy Crowe, pianist Imogen Cooper, and the excellent duo that is baritone Benjamin Appl and the festival’s director and resident pianist Sholto Kynoch.

Oxford Lieder Festival 2020, review

Oxford Lieder Festival 2020: Festival Director Sholto Kynoch and baritone Benjamin Appl take questions from presenter Hannah French

The lineup concluded with Kitty Whately, Ashley Riches, the great Roderick Williams and the godly Christoph Prégardien who performed the festival’s closing number with a Schubert medley.

Oxford Lieder Festival 2020, review

Oxford Lieder Festival 2020: Pianist Julius Drake and Singaporean-British mezzo Fleur Barron

Each evening recital began with a selection of Schubert songs performed by emerging singers. No offense to the “golden oldies” but this group well-nigh stole the shows. The new generation of soon-to-be superstars included the exquisite mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, bass William Thomas, tenor William Morgan (channelling the Kynoch look), soprano Nardus Williams and bass-baritone Tristan Hambleton. Rowan Pierce, who gave us Purcell in the Ashmolean Museum last year, and British soprano Harriet Burns completed the 2020 show-stopping lineup of emerging artists.

On Thursday, the captivating contralto Jess Dandy was accompanied by pianist Dylan Perez, both winners of the Oxford Lieder Young Artist Platform. Dandy sang songs by Wolf, Debussy and Brahms, as well as the Three Browning Songs  by Amy Beach. Hers is a voice which is opulent and rich as the deepest cup of hot cocoa.

One of my festival favourites was a candelit evening concert at the Radcliffe Observatory . Sean Shibe strummed his stuff on the guitar with mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean singing. The evening was a celebration of the night with lullabies, folk songs and celestial poetry.

Like the Old Vic’s In Camera  productions, the up close and personal camera work meant we could get an intimate look into the performances as well as the performers. They were in my living room with me, and I was in Oxford with them. I like to think a combination of live and virtual performing is the way forward for Oxford Lieder. It provides accessibility to a national and international audience and also means we can watch from the comfort of home and at a time that suits.

This year’s Oxford Lieder Festival was a sumptuous treat despite a pandemic’s best efforts to keep me out of reach of a favourite annual culture fix. There was no coughing, clapping, laughing or crying (although Fleur Barron delivered a few tears with Schubert’s Gravedigger’s Longing) but the musical raindrops sent from Oxford to my sofa at home managed to shower this Londoness with joy at being reunited with some first-class music and song.

Next year is the festival’s big 20, and I for one can’t wait to wish it a very happy birthday. Well done for turning a mission impossible into practical magic, and a very big virtual applause for a noteworthy Oxford Lieder Festival 2020.

You can catch the concerts up until November 1. More information here.

Feature image: Oxford Lieder Festival






A London arts and culture blog featuring articles about art, theatre, opera, dance, music and design.

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