Oxford Lieder: From the Pens of Women

A whole evening of song settings of words by women is an interesting idea – and, as Kitty Whately, explained in the post-concert Q/A –  it evolved from her interest in certain writers and was first performed at Wigmore Hall last year.

Like all this year’s Oxford Lieder concerts, the evening began with a mini-recital by an emerging artist. This time it was bass-baritone Tristan Hambleton with four of Schubert’s 13 songs setting words by women. He found lots of warmth and spark in pieces which deserve to be better known than most of them are.

And so to the wistfulness of Ralph Vaughan-Williams in reflective, late-life mood, setting poems by his wife, Ursula, mostly in minor keys. Whately finds sad passion especially in Menelaus in which the titular king calls for his long lost wife, Helen, and it’s deeply poignant.

Ursula Vaughan Williams, much younger than her husband, was an accomplished poet. All the Future Days is a cycle of ten poems. Whately – who clearly has a very well established rapport with strikingly sensitive pianist, Simon Lepper – gave us Jonathan Dove’s settings of three of them. The emotional immersion in The Siren was particularly notetworthy. Whately is a singer of great versatility.

The second half of the concert used chattier texts – beginning with two poems by Margaret Attwood. Dominick Argento’s setting of Virginia Woolf’s Anxiety is an intense study of stress, based on an extract from her diary with lots of musical acrobatics, powerfully caught by both performers. It’s impossible to listen to without remembering, and reflecting on, Woolf’s eventual suicide. After that the light relief of Juliana Hall’s setting of extracts from Edna St Vincent Millay – especially the one asking for money, sang by Whatley with a big musical smile – was welcome.

The evening ended with Dove’s settings of three poems by Millay which was originally a BBC Radio 3 commission for Whately. She and Lepper took the concert to a real dramatic climax in I too Beneath Your Moon.

An enjoyable concert on the whole although, lovely as the Holywell Music Room is, it’s sad to see it empty of audience. It’s also awkwardly stilted  when at the end of each piece or set the performers simply have to stop. They don’t even smile at each other. There’s none of the sense of excitement and togetherness that an applauding audience brings. And as Hambleton told Petroc Trelawney in the interval talk it’s the audience which actually brings songs to life. Without it there’s s dimension missing.

Susan Elkin

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