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REVIEW: Oxford Lieder Festival

Reuben Tendler reviews two concerts which took place last week as part of the Oxford Lieder Festival 2019

The Rite of Spring / Owen-Apekisheva Duo / Oxford Lieder Festival 24/10/19

In Oxford Lieder Festival’s penultimate chamber concert of the year, the innocently smooth, bright-white walls of the Holywell Music Room were bashed, abraded, and violated with gloriously dirty sonic fodder. Visceral duo Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen exuberated the dramatic, technical and musical proficiencies of an entire orchestra as they exhausted the capabilities of the piano. Ardour was not, however, borrowed from the audience, as the intent gazes of both young children and the usual suspects fixed on the dynamic performers with equal intensity throughout Stravinsky’s original instrumentation of The Rite of Spring.

Despite the title of the concert, however, the first half was much more (zealously if not tonally) tame. Debussy’s Épigraphes Antiques, based on Louÿs’s poems Les Chansons de Bilitis were, whilst not as ‘erotic’ as billed, still sensuous and brilliantly expressed through the flowing choreography of hand-crossing.

As a whole, the programme was a powerful display of the duo’s perfect musical affinity, and the extent to which a helping hand (or two) makes all the difference when trying to reduce over 100 instrumental parts onto a keyboard. After three well-deserved rounds of applause, the splatters of cluster-chord still present in the room faded to reveal perhaps the finest four-handed orchestra in Oxford. 

Four Last Songs / Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton / Oxford Lieder Festival 24/10/19

What links Haydn, Schoenberg, Mahler, Koechlin, Debussy and Strauss? They all wrote lieder based on texts around the realms of heaven and earth; they all have (sometimes tenuous) links to Vienna in its periods of musical abundance and proliferation. All perfectly good answers, though for the hundreds of spectators (or listeners, behind pillars) who turned out for one of Oxford Lieder Festival’s last concerts, the common theme was that all composers’ songs were performed in dazzling flawlessness by soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton.

Beginning with a purposeful timidity that defined Haydn’s delicate Arianna a Naxos, the duo grew through the first half to a point of utter temerity, compounding elegance and forcefulness into Mahler’s brilliant Das Himmlische Leben. Perhaps it was the interval wine, or rather the excellent programming decision, but the second half was less like sonic immolation, and more akin to musically dimming the lights and reclining in front of a glowing log fire with a box of chocolates. In Strauss’ ever-loved Four Last Songs, Sampson’s sensual lilts and ponderances were comfortably cushioned by Middleton’s thoughtfully placed chords with hung like closing benedictions over the congregation of concertgoers. Following the arc of life and death, heaven and earth, power and peace, the pair truly filled St John the Evangelist with both situational and emotional relevance.

Photo: Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva in Final Note Magazine ( http://finalnotemagazine.com/articles/charles-owen-and-katya-apekisheva/ )

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