Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Riches / Kynoch & Williams / Glynn @ Holywell Music Room, Oxford

16 October 2020

Melanie Eskenazi continues our coverage of the virtual Oxford Lieder Festival.

Two baritones, one very experienced and one just becoming renowned, offered finely contrasting programmes at the Holywell Music Room. At 13.00, we heard Ashley Riches and Sholto Kynoch with Die Schöne Müllerin and at 19.30, Roderick Williams and Christopher Glynn with settings to poems by Thomas Hardy.

Ashley Riches’ interpretation of Schubert’s great cycle is fresh, youthful and yet full of sensitive introspection where required, and his partnership with Sholto Kynoch is impressively relaxed. Riches presents an impulsive, forthright young man, outraged at being seen as only one of ‘alles,’ and despairing at the thought that nothing can persuade the ‘not worth it’ girl away from the lure of the green-clad hunter.

‘Das Wandern’ set an optimistic tone, full of the great outdoors and the swaggering enthusiasm of the Miller lad, and progressing from candid delight to reflective tenderness in the tone of ‘O Wandern, wandern, meine Lust.’ Kynoch’s playing was a model of collaboration, lilting with joy and exactly replicating the millstones. ‘Morgengruss’ was sung with remarkable poise, the legato line ideally smooth and the line concluding with ‘Ihr blauen Morgensterne’ taken in one breath.

Kynoch’s vorspiel to ‘Pause’ was mellifluously achieved, and the song was the proper centre of the cycle, the place where the miller lad’s confused emotions are expressed in ‘Ich kann nicht mehr singen, mein Herz ist zu voll,’ a line which Ashley Riches performed with just the right amount of pleading. ‘Tränenregen’ centred on that crucial phrase, ‘Ach! Tränen machen nicht Maiengrün, machen tote Liebe nie wieder blü’hn’ which was powerfully yet poignantly done.

“Two baritones… offered finely contrasting programmes at the Holywell Music Room”

In the evening, Roderick Williams and Christopher Glynn provided a very different experience with a generous selection of poems by Thomas Hardy, set by various composers. All of the poet’s most endearing characteristics – receptivity to nature, world-weariness, unexpected humour and most of all the ability to “…touch our hearts, by showing his own” are found in these vignettes, and the chosen settings were ones which emphasize them.

Britten’s unique understanding of Hardy’s poetic world is expressed in music which lies most gracefully for a voice such as that of Roderick Williams, with its cultivated grace edged with anxiety. ‘At day-close in November’ and ‘At the railway station, Upway – ‘The convict and the boy with the violin’’ were both sung and played with naturalness and dramatic verve, and ‘Before life and after’ brought the recital’s first half to a sombre close.

Gerald Finzi’s Before and After Summer rivals Britten’s Winter Words in its closeness to the mood of Hardy’s poems, and this rousing performance did the set full justice. ‘The Self-Unseeing’ is  characteristic of Hardy in achieving great things by simple means, and Finzi’s intensely melancholic setting brings out the sadness of the reflection that, as Shelley put it, “We look before and after, we pine for what is not.” Williams and Glynn relished the dramatic contrasts in the music, just as they enjoyed the grim humour of ‘Channel Firing’ and the resigned reflections of ‘He abjures love.’

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