(C) Bertie Watson Photography - Nardus Williams for Intermusica

Spring is coming early this year, thanks to the Oxford Lieder Festival. 

The festival’s popular Weekend of Song, which normally takes place in April, has been brought forward to the end of February to give music lovers a much-needed boost at the end of what has seemed a long and miserable winter.

“I know with the Oxford vaccine there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but because everything feels a bit bleak at the moment we thought people needed something to look forward to,” says artistic director Sholto Kynoch

“So we brought everything forward, because we thought the sooner we can cheer everybody up the better.”

Sholto Kynoch, Artistic Director Oxford Lieder

As always, this mini festival is very much a condensed version of the main October festival – eight events across two days, including recitals and talks, with a mix of established stars and emerging artists. All events will be livestreamed from the Holywell Music Room and presented by BBC Radio 3’s Petroc Trelawney

The theme, Winter into Spring – The Changing Seasons, sets an optimistic tone that reflects not only warmer days ahead but also, hopefully, a path out of the pandemic towards a return to normality.

‘The whole guiding principle of this spring weekend is that it should go ahead, no matter what happens.”

Opening the festival is tenor Joshua Ellicott, who makes a long-awaited return to the festival with Britten’s 20-minute song cycle Winter Words and winter-themed songs by Schubert. He is accompanied by festival regular Anna Tilbrook.

Joshua Ellicott pic by Sane Seven

The winter theme continues with Schubert’s much-loved song cycle Winterreise, sung by German baritone Dietrich Henschel, and a recital of Purcell, Brahms and Walton songs by rising star Nardus Williams. Sholto Kynoch accompanies both recitals.

Joël Terrin and Cole Knutson, winners of last year’s Oxford Lieder Young Artist Platform, take us into spring with some spring-themed songs by Ravel, Brahms and others.

They are followed by acclaimed soprano Natalya Romaniw, making her Oxford Lieder debut. Recently crowned RPS Young Singer of the Year, and well known to Garsington Opera audiences, Natalya is joined by pianist Lada Valešová to perform songs from their recent CD, Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

The festival comes to a close with a recital by Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught and accompanist Dearbhla Collins featuring songs by Wolf, Brahms, Dvorak and Quilter.

Tara Erraught pic by Christian Kaufmann

Inevitably, the pandemic has already interfered with the programming. A concert by Merton College Choir, scheduled for the Saturday night, has had to be cancelled as students are not in college at the moment, and will probably be replaced with a late night piano recital. 

Travel restrictions could also cause problems, as Sholto explains: “There’s concern about Dietrich Henschel and Tara Erraught, two of our star artists, coming from Germany and Ireland respectively. 

“Engaging with the arts through technology is not going to replace live music, but is a way of staying in touch with a new audience, so a really exciting position to be in.”

“A few days in quarantine while rehearsing is one thing, but having to stay in an airport hotel for ten days is another, if they’re allowed to travel at all, so there’s definitely a risk.”

Sholto is confident, though, that replacements can be found. 

“The thing about the pandemic, of course, is that it’s made everybody so flexible. While we potentially can’t welcome artists from abroad to the UK, there are no UK artists going abroad at the moment, so we’re going to have the pick of the crop in terms of who’s available. 

Dietrich Henschel

“I’m not worried that we’re not going to be able to present any of the concerts, and for me that’s the important thing at the moment. The whole guiding principle of last October’s festival and this spring weekend is that they should be able to go ahead, no matter what happens.”

Will the programmes change at all, if artists have to be replaced?

“Certainly on the Saturday night there will be a Winterreise performance. On the Sunday, Tara’s very mixed programme probably won’t be the same song for song, but it will be a similar theme.

“the livestreaming element has been quite transformational. people from all over the world tuned in”

“Everything else should be very much the same.”

Sholto was delighted with the success of the livestreaming at last year’s main festival, and is keen to build on that this year with the same kind of imaginative filming.

“The feedback from our filming in October was fantastic, and we’re looking to replicate that.

“I didn’t want us to be in the Holywell singing down from a normal stage to an imaginary audience. It was much more about intimate performance between the pianist and the singer, and I want to invite the audience to be drawn into that. That kind of quality of filming is definitely going to be present again.”

Anna Tilbrook

Livestreaming arts events became the ‘new normal’ in 2020, and Sholto believes it is here to stay. 

“The livestreaming element has been quite transformational,” he says. “A huge number of people from all over the world tuned in, from places like Australia or America. 

“We also had a lot of people who normally attend five or six live concerts and regret not being able to see everything. 

“The idea that people can watch everything at their leisure, either live or on catchup, is hugely appealing, so we need to have a strong element of livestreaming in the future alongside the fully live festival.

“It’s very exciting to be able to connect to people around the world, and I think we’ve turned adversity to advantage. 

“Engaging with the arts through technology is not going to replace live music, and I don’t think it should, but it can be an additional, complementary thing, a way of staying in touch with a new audience, an international audience, and to insure ourselves against any pandemics in the future as well. It’s a really exciting position to be in.”

The Oxford Lieder Weekend of Song runs from 27th-28th February. Book tickets online at www.oxfordlieder.co.uk or phone the box office on 01865 591276.