The festival opens with a recital from Sarah Connolly and Graham Johnson performing Schubert, Brahms and Wolf, and closes with Christoph Pregardien and Roger Vignoles performing Heinrich Heine settings by Schumann and Schubert, whilst in between there are a great many other delights. I recently met the festival's founder and artistic director
Sholto Kynoch, for coffee and to chat about what makes the festival tick.
Sholto, who is himself a pianist, founded the festival when he arranged a series of Schubert recitals in Oxford. He had recently graduated and was staying on in Oxford for a year before going to the Royal Academy of Music. This first group of concerts was performed mainly by students, but it was germ from which the whole festival grew. There never was a master-plan, it just grew even though for the first five years of the festival's existence Sholto was still studying. The festival has grown somewhat, particularly in the last few years and now they plan to build on the success of last year's Schubert project.
In person he is a big bloke, very personable and clearly highly knowledgeable and happy to talk about his work. Song is rarely absent from our conversation, and is clearly one of his passions and we come back more than once to the comparative neglect of the song recital nowadays.
I ask Sholto what he sees as the Oxford Lieder Festival's particular qualities. First, of course, comes the location as Oxford is such a special place and the presence of so many tourists is a plus point in terms of festival audience. Secondly, the festival concentrates solely on song, and no other festival comes close in scope. Sholto feels the festival has a mission to promote the neglected genre of lieder and art song, as he sees the song as having faded from the concert platform (with the notable exception of places like the Wigmore Hall).
But the festival also has a very particular atmosphere. Many of the venues are quite small and intimate (the Holywell Music Rooms, which they use regularly, holds just 200) and the whole event has a welcoming informality. They also do lots of related events and there are some wonderfully imaginative combinations of programming. There are lots of talks and study events which complement the performances, and all texts and translations are provided (they will be free this year). There is also an extensive education programme involving primary schools, a residential course and promoting new music, as well as supporting young singers, as well as encouraging the ordinary concert goer (and the concert has a number of 'take-part' events).
A sampling of what's on offer at this year's festival demonstrates the sort of imaginative, joined-up programming available. There's a day with a theme of Michelangelo running through it. Things start with Michelangelo poems (and coffee) at the Ashmolean Museum, then a free concert of Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo with Daniel Norman and Sholto Kynoch, lunch with Stephanie Marshall, Johnny Herford and Gary Matthewman performing Faure and Schubert, a talk on the Michelangelo drawings in the Ashmolean collection followed by Javier Borda and Lada Valesova performing the original version of Shostakovich's Michelangelo settings (at the Ashmolean Museum), then Faure and Janacek chamber music, Eucharist in New College Oxford, and Joan Rogers and Sholto Kynoch exploring settings of Pushkin and Tolstoy. Finally there is a reading of a short story by Aleksandr Kuprin at the King's Arms pub.
All this costs money,especially with predominantly small venues and Sholto admits that money is an endless problem. Last year they sold 12,500 tickets, but ticket income covers just one third of their costs. This means that there is a constant round of fund-raising and applications to trusts and foundations. They have also been experimenting in using some bigger venues. Last year, for the first time, they used the Sheldonian Theatre. Contrary to its reputation, Sholto found that it had quite a good acoustic though it is notoriously uncomfortable. It does however, provide them with more seats as there is the same number of good seats as the Holywell Music Room but also lots of cheaper seats as well. They are also using St John the Evangelist, a church which is now a concert venue. This seats 500 and is the biggest that Sholto feels he wants them to go.
As well as the informal intimacy, Sholto wants to keep the festival's friendly, family atmosphere with many of their audience coming every night. He makes the events as welcoming as possible, keeping them friendly and casual (with no dress code). He is present every night, either front of house or performing and sometimes both. People travel to the festival, a lot of the audience comes from outside Oxford, last year they had visitors from the USA, France, Germany and a group from Holland.
Of course, the event which made people really notice the festival was last year's Schubert Project where all of Schubert's songs (and some of his other music too) were programmed in a specially extended three week festival. The idea of doing all of Schubert's songs had been a long term vision of Sholto's but it was something only discussed seriously in the last three to four years and was a two year undertaking to plan.
The duration of the festival was extended from two weeks to three, the budget nearly tripled and they went from giving 30 concerts to 70 concerts. The festival included events in the Ashmolean, a study day at the Botanic Garden as well as lots of other new experiences. It was such as success that they want to build on it without having people feel that they are simply repeating themselves. This year's festival is smaller in scale, but Sholto thinks that it is impressive and builds on last year in the way the festival is programmed with such things as masterpiece events (of short duration, often free) popping up in unusual places (Britten's Winter Words in Exeter College Chapel), poetry readings and collaborations with organisations like the Ashmolean. For Sholto, last year's festival was the first time they had been properly able to combine this sort of tight programming and unusual events, though they had been working towards it.
Last year's Schubert Project was themed by poet (this has led on to this year's theme of poets and their songs). In fact, his first view of programming all of Schubert's songs was to mix and match the known and the unknown, but instead they grouped them by theme or poet. This meant that there was a long evening of short strophic songs setting Klopstock, Holderin and associated poets. This sort of programming was quite risky, but people entered into it and people saw a side of Schubert that is not so well known. Also, these were the type of songs which, placed alongside some of the well-known greats, would easily disappear yet Sholto thinks they are equally important in Schubert's repertoire. Sholto was really proud of this concert, and feels that they did not try to brush the smaller songs under the carpet.
It took two years to find enough singers, and to organise the programming. And it worked, for Sholto there wasn't a single duff concert, and he tried to avoid a sense of just ticking off the songs. A handful of people heard every Schubert song and one person went to every event. The intention had always been that the programming would be done in such a way that a listener could hear every Schubert song - a once in a lifetime event.
This year they didn't want to simply revert back to their old format, nor to find the festival compared to the Schubert Project, and of course the poet focus of the Schubert songs led straight to this year's theme. The theme will be encompassed by most, but not all of this year's concert. People love poetry, and it does enable Sholto and his performers to explore the essence of song. He comments that he always programmes by starting with the music first, so it was to some extent salutary to start from the text. And he asks rhetorically why, though they have collaborated with the Ashmolean and with the music faculty, the festival has never done a collaborations with faculties like Modern Languages?
Of course, programming can be a problem especially as so many of Schubert's songs are not known. Younger artists can sometimes be reluctant to learn new repertoire, and older singers have no time. But overall, Sholto has found the singers very responsive to learning songs so that last year's Schubert Project could be really complete. Sholto sees it as his job to present something that the artist wants to be part of (and Sholto admits that this has been learned on the job). He also admits that there are a handful of singers whom he will welcome whatever repertoire they bring. Christian Gerhaher will be opening the 2016 concert in a programme of the singer's own choosing.
Next year's festival will take the songs of Schumann as its theme, performing all of them. This is nothing like the undertaking of Schubert and the festival will last its usual two weeks (Sholto points out that the complete Schumann edition lasts 11 CD's rather than Schubert's 37!). This conciseness means that they can look at Schumann's contemporaries more, bringing out the links to Leipzig, to Mendelssohn and the Bach revival, to Brahms. Sholto still has not quite decided how to programme the songs. It would be easy to do it by poet as with Schubert, but Schumann's songs are more easily grouped as they were published and the final programming my do one or the other or a mixture. Of course, to programme all of a composer's songs, Sholto has to take the time to get to know the body of work even if he has not performed all of them.
As a pianist he combines his work as an accompanist with chamber music and the occasional solo recital. For solo recitals, he does around one programme a year, and enjoys it, but feels that he is principally a collaborative musician rather than a soloist and enjoys working both with singers and with instrumentalists and sees the collaborations as no different. He has a piano trio, the Phoenix Piano Trio, and he loves playing with them, and they have done a complete Beethoven cycle. Effectively Sholto is balancing two full time jobs, as pianist and as festival director, and clearly loves it.
Over the next few years they plan to build on the success of 2014 and fine tune the model. 2017 will see the complete Mahler songs as a thread running through the festival (as Fauré's songs run through this year's). Sholto sees a lot to be said for doing the complete songs of a composer, if you do it well. It helps to give a complete picture of the composer, both illuminating and balancing their repertoire as well as encouraging people to look at composers in a new light. They are also continuing their partnerships with organisations like the Bodleian Library and the Ashmolean Museum, which Sholto sees as an important strand in the festival's programming. There are also discussions with taking the festival brand outside of Oxford.
In some ways this builds on what they do already with their young artists platform. Each year they audition song duos and on a Spring weekend six duos get to perform for 45 minutes and participate in a master-class. Two duos are chosen to be festival ambassadors. This involves not only gigs at the main festival but outside performances too, as the festival subsidises them at music clubs (very much like the Countess of Munster Trust does), paying part of the duos fee so as to make the song recital more financially attractive, as well as sending texts and translations and offering pre-concert talks. the result not only markets the festival but gives the young artists valuable experience. They currently are able to offer 12 to 14 concerts per year like this but they would like to build on the model and offer more.
The festival brand is also available on disc as Sholto and a group of singers have recorded all of Wolf's songs live. The 9th volume will be available soon and the final two next year. Though they are planning a Schumann disc in advance of the 2016 festival, Sholto found the complete Wolf recordings a big undertaking and wants to put some distance from the project before contemplating another live recording. He finds that there are some great things about live recordings but some frustrating ones too. Away from the festival, Sholto has been recording complete songs of John Ireland, and of Havergal Brian with Mark Stone and Stone Records.
This year's Oxford Lieder Festival runs from 16 October to 31 October, there is something happening every day with events throughout the day on most days, mixing free and paid, with the core of the festival being the sequence of evening recitals. The festival venues include the Sheldonian and Holywell Music Rooms, but also many more. The festival programme lists a total of 18 venues in and around Oxford including the Ashmolean Museum, and a number of the collecges and of course the King's Arms Pub. There are Take Park! events, including a festival chorus, bring and sing and masterclasses, and the colleges have sacred music which fits the festival themes. Themes running through this year's festival include the music of Fauré and of Berlioz, and poets such as Verlaine, Pushkin, Tolstoy, AE Housman, and Heine, as well as song in translation.