Life Victoria: Oxford International Song Festival

Two events on day thirteen of the Festival, in partnership with LIFE Victoria in Barcelona, marked the centenary of the great Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles, a celebration that honours the renowned singer through performances of Lieder by up-and-coming and established artists.  In Oxford’s Holywell Music Room, I heard the Rush-Hour recital, a 50-minute programme that could have been entitled Musical Love Letters owing to its focus on songs of a confessional nature with implicit declarations of love between husband and wife, and composer and partner.  This theme was to have been continued in a later recital by 2021 Cardiff Singer of the Year Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha. Regrettably, her last-minute cancellation denied, what would have been a capacity audience, performances of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and assorted songs by Strauss and Wagner.

It was Schumann and Britten that occupied the lion’s share of the Rush-Hour recital presented by the young Chinese tenor Runzhe Li and Catalan pianist Mar Compte, both benefiting from recent studies at Germany’s Hochschule für Musik Nürnberg.  Proceedings began with Sechs Gedichte aus dem Liederbuch eines Malers (Six poems from a painter’s songbook), settings of texts by the German artist and poet Robert Reinick (1805-52).  There’s a certain sentimentality about these poems, but the optimism (which Schumann would have readily identified with just weeks before his marriage to Clara Wieck) came across vividly from the soloist.  Some of the vocal lines span nearly two octaves, and here Li’s lower register never quite projected, losing focus towards the bottom of the staff.  Elsewhere, his bright tone and clear diction reflected the excitement of passionate feelings inherent to this collection.

There was a hint of breathless ardour in the opening ‘Sonntags am Rhein’, but the slightly fast tempo impaired the song’s folk-like manner and the poet’s Sunday morning walk by the Rhine felt a little too vigorous.  A more spacious approach would have brought dividends to ‘Ständchen’, the invitation to elope or waste no more time dallying sounding more like an urgent summons than a gentle appeal.  Li’s direct manner was well suited to the assertions of love in ‘Nichts Schöneres’, its aspiring contours paralleled by a rapture that spilled over into the marching ‘An den Sonnenschein’.  Just occasionally, I wanted to hear a voice sounding less resolute to reflect the dreams and vulnerabilities of the poet. Consequently, the drama of ‘Dichters Genesung’ was only partially explored, the mythical ‘Elfenkönigin’ (Queen of the Elves) needing more differentiation between night-time encounter and dawn recovery. The concluding ‘Liebesbotschaft’ was suitably ardent, its cloud-carrying messages of love filled with yearning. Throughout, Mar Compte was an alert and sensitive collaborator, providing a considerate anchor and demonstrating a fine ear for balance.

Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michaelangelo are amongst the composer’s most demanding songs and inhabit some of the most personal music he ever produced.  Completed in New York in 1940 and written for Peter Pears, the songs were premiered at the Wigmore Hall two years later.  The cycle’s Italian texts carry a wide range of emotions, directly reflecting the love Britten so clearly felt for Pears, and are by turn passionate, soulful, fiery and tender.  It also carries memorable associations with singers of international stature whose recordings, like that of Pears himself, are indispensable.  So, it is a plucky singer who tackles these works so early in their career.

Britten’s piano writing is virtuosic, and the vocal range requires a copper-bottomed technique from the singer.  Both these demands were met with ease from Compte and Li, the latter’s higher registers ringing out convincingly in the declamatory first song.  The passionate frustrations of ‘Sonnet XXX1’ found release in the tender strains of ‘Sonnet XXX’, its legato lines well shaped if somewhat lacking in room-stilling intimacy.  Fevered emotions coloured ‘Sonnet LV’ and ‘Sonnet XXXII’, while the nobility of the final song came across with tremendous authority.  There was much to admire from Li’s singing and in time a greater sense of characterisation will be allied to an already well-formed musicianship.

The recital’s remaining offerings were a handful of Schubert lieder, and three songs by the Chinese composer Huang Tzu (1904-38).  He regarded himself more as a teacher, yet as a composer of songs he won a reputation for being the Schubert of China.  His melodies may not stand up against the greatest of Lieder composers, but they have a certain charm.  For ‘Three wishes of roses’ the duo were joined by the London-based violinist Adrian Wang making a pleasant addition to a romantic song.  As an encore, Li and Compte gave a stirring account of Roger Quilter’s Love’s Philosophy, Shelley’s persuasive argument to satisfy a kiss amply fulfilled in grandiose playing and singing.

David Truslove

Runzhe Li (tenor), Mar Compte (piano), Adrian Wang (violin)

Robert Schumann – Sechs Gedichte aus dem Liederbuch eines Malers Op. 36; Britten – Seven Sonnets of Michaelangelo. Op. 22; Schubert – Frühlingsglaube, Heidenröslein, Das Heimweh; Huang Tzu – Spring Fever Tune, Three wishes of roses, Homesick; Quilter – Love’s Philosophy

Holywell Music Room, Oxford; Wednesday 25th October 2023.

ABOVE: Runzhe Li