Nicola Lisle talks to director Sholto Kynoch about this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival

Oxford audiences are about to be swept into 19th century Vienna as the Oxford Lieder Festival, now in its 16th year, starts a two-week journey through a particularly exciting and richly inventive period of classical music.

The Last of the Romantics focuses on the complete song repertoire of Gustav Mahler and explores the works of other composers who were part of the rich cultural landscape of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“I decided this would be a nice extension of what we’ve done over the last couple of years while also being very different,” says artistic director Sholto Kynoch, who founded the festival in 2002.

“It gives us the possibility to go a bit further ahead in time but also to stay rooted in the past.

“The thing about that period, the turn of the century, was there were all these pioneering things going on, but people were still obsessed with the past. They revered Schubert and Beethoven but also composers like Schoenberg.

“I just thought it was a really interesting way of taking a lot of the music that our audiences are most familiar with and hopefully gently pushing at the edges of that as well with some amazing music and composers that we often don’t get to explore quite so much.”

The festival opens in spectacular style with two outstanding evenings with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, presented in association with Music at Oxford.

Tomorrow night the orchestra are joined by Kate Royal (soprano), Toby Spence (tenor) and Dietrich Henschel (baritone) for a selection of Richard Strauss songs and two Mahler song cycles, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) and Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), arranged for chamber orchestra.

This is followed on Sunday by a screening of the silent film version of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, accompanied by the OAE playing Strauss’s own chamber orchestra arrangement of the score.

“The Rosenkavalier evening is one of the most exciting events of the festival, even though it’s got nothing to do with song!” laughs Sholto. “But in an exploration of Viennese music, it’s good to have an opera all about Vienna. And Strauss’s musical language is so associated with that period, and that style, so he’s featuring a lot in the festival.

“I thought it was such a fantastic thing to have. I don’t think it’s been done in this country for about twenty years. We’ve got a 6m cinema screen going up on the Town Hall stage, and I think it’s going to be amazing.”

As always, the festival has attracted a starry line-up of singers. The ever-popular Roderick Williams is back to sing Schubert’s Die Sch?ne M?llerin, while German baritone Roman Trekel makes his festival debut with Schubert’s other great song cycle, Winterreise.

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly returns with an evening of songs by Mahler, Korngold and Zemlinsky, accompanied by Eugene Asti, while tenor Ian Bostridge is back with regular accompanist Julius Drake in a programme of songs by arch-enemies Brahms and Wolf.

But Oxford Lieder is not just about the established stars. It is also about giving a platform to young, rising talent through the festival’s lunchtime series.

“We’re now at the point where our evenings are established with great singers, so we’ve tried to get the lunchtime series a bit more established as well,” Sholto explains.

“We’ve got people like Ashley Riches and Kathryn Rudge, who are both BBC New Generation artists, and Alessandro Fisher and James Newby, who were joint winners of last year’s Kathleen Ferrier Awards. We’ve also got Caitlin Hulcup, who’s done a lot at Garsington and is gaining an excellent reputation. So we’ve really got the crème de la crème of young singers.”

For those wanting to delve more deeply into Mahler’s world, there are two study days with lecture-recitals, coffee and a light lunch.

Then there are all the usual lectures, masterclasses, a Bring and Sing, late night sessions and other fringe events.

On the opening day, you can immerse yourself in the world of Viennese waltzes, Hungarian dances and more at The Viennese Café, held in the café at Waterstones.

Night owls might prefer the Late-Night Salon at The Mad Hatter, where you can enjoy Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet and cabaret songs with soprano Raphaela Papadakis and the Piatti String Quartet, while sipping on cocktails.

Both of these events are free.

Of course, one of the beauties of the Oxford Lieder Festival is that you don’t have to choose one event over another.

“Generally, we try to avoid anything running concurrently,” says Sholto. “So, in theory, you can go to everything apart from the participatory events. There’s a lot of consideration given to how people can structure their days if they do want to fit everything in.”

*Oxford Lieder Festival, Oct 13-28

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