In a musical calendar that has no shortage of festivals throughout the year, one event, about to take place for the seventh time, has established itself as an important addition. Art Song is a genre that can struggle to get an audience but for music lovers October in Oxford now only means one thing: the Oxford Lieder Festival.
When I meet up to chat to the festival's Artistic Director and founder, Sholto Kynoch, he tells me how from its modest beginnings, the festival has expanded its reach well beyond the shadows of Oxford's dreaming spires. 'A survey we did showed that a large proportion of our audience is made up of people who have travelled more than sixty miles. We've had interest from a Schubert society in Denmark this year too, who wanted to organise a trip.' In many ways this comes as no surprise since the festival, which is backed up by concerts and events throughout the year, can lay claim to being the largest celebration of Art Song and Lieder in this country, if not the world.
Each year, the roster of performers featured seems more prestigious and the 2008 festival will host recitals by well-established artists such as Sir Thomas Allen (one of the festival's patrons, who sings French song on 17 October), Ian Partridge, Susan Bickley, Sarah Connolly (in the same Schumann programme as her new Chandos CD), Lisa Milne, Mark Stone and James Gilchrist. Alongside them are exciting younger performers and several singers rapidly making names for themselves in Britain. One of these is Austrian Baritone Florian Boesch, fresh from triumphs at festivals in Aldeburgh and Edinburgh. 'I'd not heard him when he was recommended by Andrew West, but I went and heard him at the Cheltenham in Schwanengesang and he was breathtakingly good – which was quite a relief since we'd already signed the contract!' The impressive list of pianists appearing includes names such as Roger Vignoles, Julius Drake, Eugene Asti, David Owen Norris, Simon Lepper, and Andrew West.
The festival kicks off on 10 October with Ian Partridge's farewell recital, in which the veteran tenor presents a selection of his favourite Schubert Lieder, accompanied by Kynoch himself. This is also the start of an opening weekend of Schubert that features Boesch in Winterreise, Gilchrist in Die schöne Müllerin and tenor Joshua Ellicott in Schwanengesang, as well as a performance of the twenty Kosegarten Songs of 1815, Schubert's 'Undiscovered' Song Cycle, in which David Owen Norris accompanies students from the Royal College of Music. The day after his Farewell Recital, Partridge will also lead a masterclass. 'After presenting Ian's final professional performance, it's nice to give him his first piece of post-retirement work', jokes Kynoch.
The rest of the festival has a 'fairly loose theme' revolving around folk song and gypsy music. 'I like the idea of singers doing folk music from their own countries', he explains, 'so in the final concert, for example, we've got Mark Stone doing English folk songs, and Lisa Milne doing Scottish ones.' In addition, a concert by anglo-Czech mezzo, Lucie Špicková, will include Dvorak's Gypsy Songs (15 October) and another with the Prince Consort will feature Brahms' Zigeunerlieder as well as Janacek's Diary of one who Vanished (16 October). Swedish pianist Martin Sturfält – who releases a disc of Stenhammer on Hyperion in November – will accompany baritone Giles Underwood in Swedish folksong arrangements as well as works by Vaughan Williams and Ferguson (21 October).
There's 'Late night Messiaen' from Gweneth-Ann Jeffers and Simon Lepper after Thomas Allen's recital on 17 October and the next evening, Bickley and Drake offer Britten, Ravel and Michael Berkeley. Kynoch is again at the piano on 19 October, accompanying Serbian soprano Olja Dakic in Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. It's a programme they're due to repeat in Berlin's Philharmonie, and Kynoch talks enthusiastically about Dakic, a 'big dramatic soprano doing Russian stuff that suits her down to the ground.'
There's a strong local element on 24 October when David Owen Norris leads a tour of the city's musical sites during the day, setting the context for 'An Oxford Song Book' in the evening. This concert will be a celebration of the works of William and Phillip Hayes, father and son Oxford Professors of Music who respectively built the Holywell Music Room and wrote the first piano concerto.
And if all that wasn't enough, there are four concerts of 'Lunchtime Lieder' peppered across the fortnight, given by outstanding postgraduate singers from London's Royal Academy of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
The opening Schubert weekend brings back memories for Kynoch of the very first festival, which he organised with some Oxford friends just after graduating from the University. The original idea, he tells me, was just to put on the three Schubert song cycles in a weekend, but before long they'd produced a programme which also included Brahms' Liebesliederwalzer, a couple of additional song recitals and a concert of Schubert trios. 'We found we had seven concerts, decided to spread it out over two weeks, somebody came up with the bright idea of calling it the Oxford Lieder Festival and that's where it all started. We were all still students and it was a low-key affair but it went well, so we tried it again the next year and here we are seven years later.'
The dreaming spires of Oxford provide a highly civilised backdrop to such a festival and although Kynoch laments the shortage of a 400-500 seat venue in the city, both the Holywell music room – the oldest purpose built concert venue in the world – and the University's Jacqueline Du Pré Music Building are excellent smaller venues. For larger concerts, such as Thomas Allen's recital this year, the festival is able to call upon the University Church. With a policy of reasonably priced tickets, including five pound entry for students, it's surprising their links with the university are not stronger; 'another thing we're trying to build on.'
However, education still plays an extremely important role. The festival hosts a week-long Mastercourse for ten singer-pianist couples presided over by Sarah Walker. She offers extensive coaching, with contributions from Richard Stokes, Asti and Drake, and helps choose the repertoire for the Mastercourse concert on 22 October. Perhaps even more impressive is the Schools Project, where four groups from two local primary schools come together under the guidance of expert workshop leaders to produce their own song-cycles. 'Interdisciplinary is maybe a rather grand word for something put together by a load of primary school children,' Kynoch tells me, 'but they get them writing their own words, their own music and performing it all. The guys who take the classes are incredible and I don't know quite how they manage to come up with so much material. These 130 kids all came together for the final concert and last year, it was about forty minutes long and most of it sung from memory.'
There are also adult education events, which have proven extremely popular in previous years and although Kynoch thinks it's 'contrived' to talk of 'the audience of tomorrow', he sees the broad array of eduction work as essential for drumming up interest in the festival. And it's clear he takes obvious pleasure in giving people a greater appreciation of a genre which he agrees does not always bring in the audiences it should.
Other initiatives he speaks of with great enthusiasm are the Oxford Lieder Scholarship, an award for outstanding young singers with links to Oxford, which was presented for a second time this year and for which he's secured financial backing for at least another three years. The first release in a series of in-house recordings was delayed by production problems but Kynoch is constantly exploring ways of reaching a wider audience and talks of possible future CD releases and also podcasts.
With such a full and varied programme of events – augmented this year by a Fringe Festival organised by Opera Anywhere – the 2008 Oxford Lieder Festival will, for two weeks, turn the historic university city into nothing short of the song capital of the world. The festival's motto is borrowed from a Schubert's 'An die Musik': 'du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür', the father of song's own thanks to the power of music. As it goes from strength to strength, anyone interested in Lieder and song should feel similarly thankful for such an important addition to the country's musical life.
By Hugo Shirley
The Oxford Lieder Festival runs from 10-25 October. For more information, visit the Oxford Lieder website.