Oxford Lieder: Winter into Spring – the changing seasons

The weather was fortuitous for Oxford Lieder’s live, online mini-festival, Winter into Spring.  Across the UK, the blossom buds and nudging crocuses were bathed in warm sunshine, the thick dawn frost and early morning mist burned away to reveal clear, blue skies.  And so, the season turns, heralding brighter days and, we hope, better times.  Oxford Lieder’s two-day programme of nine events, broadcast live from Holywell Music Room and introduced by BBC Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny, reflected this seasonal shift, with the wintery offerings of the opening day giving way to songs of spring the next.

The weekend got underway with this recital by tenor Joshua Ellicott and pianist Anna Tilbrook of songs by Schubert preceded by Benjamin Britten’s Winter Words.  Tilbrook deftly conjured the drama and movement at the start of ‘At Day-close in November’, the winging birds, the tossing pine branches – the sudden turning of the late-autumn day to night.  Ellicott’s nicely sculpted and modulated vocal phrases conveyed the sense of a shade being drawn down, not just on a day but on a life, as the poet-speaker reflects on the contrast between the pines’ eternal presence and human transience.  ‘Midnight on the Great Western’ had a haunting quality.  The piano’s pictorialisms were sharply drawn: the train’s light trundling on the tracks was a skeletal jangling while the inter-verse whistles cried eerily from an unknown past into an unknown future.  Ellicott was alert and sensitive to the textual imagery: a lyrical elongation conveyed the lick of “the roof-lamp’s oily flame” and his tenor brightened like the “twinkled gleams of the Lamp’s sad beams”.   The melismatic wave which carried the “journeying boy” onwards seemed unstoppable and a little sinister.

Anna Tilbrook and Joshua Ellicott

In ‘Wagtail and Baby’ the freshness and energy of the natural world was palpable.  It troubles not the wagtail which, espied by a baby, ignores the arrival of blaring bull, splashing stallion, slinking mongrel and continues its dipping and drinking in the ford.  A strengthening of Ellicott’s marked the disruptive arrival of a “perfect gentleman” in the final stanza, and a perfectly timed pause and flourish followed, as the wagtail “With terror rose and disappeared”.  The duo captured the wry and unsettling shift of the closing line, Ellicott using a controlled head voice, “The baby fell a-thinking”, which lingered, like that babe’s thoughts and our own, the darker turn taken being conveyed by the piano’s harmonic unrest and falling register.  The contrast, in ‘The Little Old Table’, between onomatopoeic creaks and squeaks in the present, and thoughts of time past, actions rued and loves lost, was vividly conveyed, the lengthening of phrases evoking still-felt pain.

‘The Choirmaster’s burial’ was a mini-drama, a whole life and death condensed in one short song.  Ellicott’s soft tenderness, as he recalled the choirmaster and his wish for an outdoor funeral was deeply touching, and he conveyed a persuasive sense of the hope for, and possibility of, transcendence: “And perhaps we should seem/ To him, in death’s dream,/ Like the seraphim.”  With briskness our narrator reminded the vicar of this parting wish, then captured the dismissive coldness of the latter’s refusal.  Tilbrook’s bitter repetitions rushed us brusquely through the funeral, “without tune”.  But, relaxation and expanse came with the nocturnal vision of an angelic choir, “Singing and playing/ The ancient stave/ By the choirmaster’s grave” – a tale remembered and recounted to our narrator by the tenor man, many years later, “When he had grown old”.   Ellicott  captured sense of stepping back from the events just re-lived, into the frame of the present, the recipient of the tale now a storyteller himself.

Joshua Ellicott

Tilbrook conjured a harmonious multifariousness of chirruping clamour in ‘Proud Songsters’ and Ellicott once again displayed judicious verbal heightening and telling use of vocal colour to indicate poetic import.  The sense that the cycles of nature run their course indifferent to human fears or cares was powerfully communicated.  At the start of ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’, the sparse unpredictability of the jerky piano gestures, grating demonically like a scordatura fiddle, established an air of unease, and with grim bitterness Ellicott delivered the assertive convict’s song, “This life so free/Is the thing for me.”  The musicians’ understatement at the close was a perfect match for Hardy’s quiet pathos.  In ‘Before Life and After’, the piano’s steady, warm tread was time eternal and ever-present, only lightly touched by the harmonic piquancy of human sufferings: “regret, starved hope … heart-burnings”.  There was a strong sense of moving forwards, of denying the voice its meditations and questionings, and Ellicott’s final insistent wondering, “How long, how long?”, was more inner than outer.  The piano offered no answers.

A sequence of Schubert songs formed the second half of the recital. Stillness, silence and absence were evoked in ‘Winterlied’ as the stanzas unfold quietly and reflectively; the mood was resigned, withdrawn – a collar turned up against the cold.  But, there was a slight pushing forwards in the final verse, and then a relaxing rallentando with the closing affirmation: “Deinen Frost nicht fühlen;/ Walte immerdar, Kalter Januar!”  (I shall not feel your frost. Reign for ever, cold January.)  The torments of restless love tumbled through ‘Rastlose Liebe’, in the form of churning, relentless piano cascades and an urgent vocal line.  Ellicott’s tenor was not always as focused in the faster songs, though his tenor was strong at the top.  ‘Das Lied vom Reifen’ played to his strengths, though, and the consoling beauty of frost-bedecked branches, made elegant by celestial hands, was wonderfully conveyed.  Similarly, in ‘Die Sterne’, though the tempo was perhaps a little slow, captured the song’s carefree radiance and rapture. 

Anna Tilbrook

Tilbrook discerningly evoked the unfolding mists and piercing moon in the piano introduction to ‘Nachtstück’, and as the old man took his harp and walked towards the wood, the piano’s weary step and Ellicott’s sensitive phrases conveyed both yearning and belief.  The reassurances offered by the rustling trees and swaying grasses were embodied by the warm blanket of the piano’s caressing embrace.  In ‘Greisengesang’, Ellicott captured the dichotomy of sentiment embodied in the poem’s structures: “Der Winter hat die Scheitel mir weiss gedeckt;/ Doch fliesst das Blut, das rote, durchs Herzgemach.”  (Winter has whitened the top of my head, but the blood flows red in my heart.)  Again, the tempo was quite drawn out, but this only served to emphasise the depth of feeling, and the dignity: “Ins Herz hinab.”  (Down into my heart).  ‘Nacht und Träume’ brought the recital to a peaceful close.  Ellicott’s tenor gently carried the dreams on their floating fall (“Nieder wallen auch die Träume”), captured the rapture in the hearts of men (“Die belauschen sie mit Lust”), and pleaded earnestly that the holy night might return (“Kehre wieder, heil’ge Nacht!”).  Peace would surely come; as will spring.

Claire Seymour

Joshua Ellicott (tenor), Anna Tilbrook (piano)

Britten – Winter Words; Schubert – ‘Winterlied’ (D401), ‘Rastlose Liebe’ (D138), ‘Das Lied vom Reifen’ (D532), ‘Nachtstück’ (D672), ‘Die Sterne’ (D939), ‘Greisengesang’ (D778), ‘Nacht und Träume’ (D827)

Holywell Music Room, Oxford (live stream); Saturday 27th February 2021.

ABOVE: Anna Tilbrook (piano) and Joshua Ellicott (tenor)