It’s rare for my wife and me to feel that we are among the younger members of the audience, but this happened at the Oxford Lieder Festival 2015, “Singing Words: Poets and their Songs.” The occasion was a concert of songs by Schumann, Mahler and Mendelssohn at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. As this tiny, elegant hall is the oldest dedicated music venue in Europe, I suppose it was merely an age-appropriate crowd that came to hear Henk Neven and Imogen Cooper.
I had not heard or seen the whippet-thin Dutch baritone before. He has a fine presence and an expressive face that makes me imagine he’d be more in demand on the opera stage than his website seems to indicate. Imogen Cooper is simply a great pianist, and the fact that she’s chosen to work with him is an endorsement of Neven’s gifts.
Heinrich Heine was the poet of the evening, as three of his settings by Mendelssohn, including a charming rendition of Auf Flügeln des Gesanges were included alongside the nine Heine poems of Schumann’s Liederkreis Op. 24. But it was really the folk poems set by Mahler in Des Knabe Wunderhorn that caused a stir. Indeed, Imogen Cooper’s introductory bars of Der Tamboursg’sell must have rattled the tea cups of all North Oxford, as her left hand boomed out – what? – the rumblings of a train, the clanking of the tumbrils, the firing of the cannons? – in the figures of the funeral march that sends to the gallows the Drummer-boy who has deserted. It was either heart-stopping or ear-shattering, depending on your disposition. It was a demonstration of pure pianistic power, in which the Steinway seemed larger than the hall that contained it, proof that the piano is a percussion instrument.
It was in this last set of songs that Neven’s acting ability appeared, as his dark-set eyes, highly plastic mouth and overall body language showed the boy’s terror and that of the deserter of Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz, and of the dying man of Revelge; he was also a convincing roué in Trost im Unglück. It’s true that his upper register did not appear very strong, and that he stretched for some of the high notes where a frank falsetto might have been more advisable. It was a performance of passion and drama, rather than precision; but he coped admirably with the volume being produced by the keyboard and pedals. Of Cooper’s playing I’d say only that it makes the orchestral version of Des Knabe Wunderhorn redundant. It all goes to show her versatility: I’ve been present when she has played a Schubert concerto where one movement ended in a ppp so discreet that you thought you must have imagined it.
This wonderful 16-day annual October mini-festival is the brainchild of one young man, Sholto Kynoch. Though for once my presence lowered rather than raised the mean age of the audience, Oxford Lieder does a good deal for younger people, especially young singers, with performance opportunities and masterclasses. Sometimes I think I love Lieder more than any other kind of music. Do you suppose you could take a baritone, great pianist and her Steinway as your luxury on Desert Island Discs?