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Ian Partridge farewell concert, Oxford Lieder Festival, Holywell Music Room
As English institutions go, tenor Ian Partridge is up there with Beefeaters and a nice cup of tea. His expressive lyric tone and flexible phrasing have not only defined an era in English music, but have also sustained a distinctively national tradition of song that can be traced back from Peter Pears through to latest heir apparent Ian Bostridge.
On Friday, a full house bade farewell to this national treasure in his final solo concert, bringing Partridge back in fittingly cyclical fashion to Oxford — the scene of his very first performances as a New College chorister some 60 years ago. Serving paradoxically both as farewell and introduction, the recital marked the start of this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival, launching its opening Schubert Weekend with a programme of night-themed songs.
If there exists somewhere a melodic equivalent of Borges’s limitless Library of Babel it is safe to assume that Schubert occupies a hefty chunk of the shelf space — even if forced into the indignity of jostling for it with Andrew Lloyd Webber. This recital, with pianist Sholto Kynoch, was a potent reminder of the composer’s inalienable position as the master of melody.
With any programme of songs on a single theme with no real through-narrative, the danger of a monotone or stagnant mood is very real; yet in Schubert’s hands the idea of night yields up a multiplicity of different faces and characters, from the playfully matter-of-fact celebration of stars in Die Sterne to the achingly lyrical ballad Nacht und Traume.
With so many of the songs built around repetition, however, the onus falls upon the performers to breathe variation and direction into works whose simple elegance and impact lies entirely in the nuance of their delivery. While lacking the sustaining power and richness of tone of his youth, what Partridge so amply retains is his unerring instinct for the shape and flexibility of any given phrase. Making an expressive virtue of his increasing lightness of tone, the simple fragility of his performance lent real magic to songs such as Nachstuck and Die Nacht.
While valediction and night may have been the dominant themes of the evening, the future of the song tradition in England is anything but dark. With accomplished recitals by Florian Boesch and Joshua Ellicott completing the Lieder Festival’s opening weekend, it seems that Schubert’s legacy has now passed safely into the hands of a new generation.