Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Oxford Lieder Festival

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Oxford Lieder Festival

Article excerpt

An opera without singers, a Strauss orchestra of just 16, and an early music ensemble playing Mahler: welcome to the Oxford Lieder Festival, where familiar repertoire is getting a reboot this year thanks to some brilliantly ambitious programming.

When it comes to classical music, we're used to living in a bifurcated world. On the one hand, you have the contemporary ensembles: the orchestras, choirs and quartets performing pretty much everything from Mozart onwards. And on the other the early music groups, whose territory is everything that's left -- Bach, Byrd, Hildegard of Bingen.

It's only fairly recently, and thanks to groups such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, that this crude, artificial divide has been challenged. Symphony orchestras are increasingly looking back in time (and not with Karajan-style colonising instincts), and so-called early music groups are extending their gaze right through to the end of the 19th-century, giving us a new, sepia-tinted window on to works whose familiar colours have been painted on by modern hands.

But period performance is one thing when it means a 100-strong OAE performing Wagner under Simon Rattle, quite another when it's just 16 players summoning the pillowy depth and expanse of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier score, with not so much as a single singer to help them.

It was Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss's collaborator and Rosenkavalier librettist, who first dreamt up the idea of a silent movie Rosenkavalier, and in 1926, under the direction of Robert Wiene (he of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari fame), it was premièred to the accompaniment of a brand-new orchestral score composed and conducted by Strauss. It's the 'salon' version, devised for cinemas with small resident ensembles, that we heard here, minutely synchronised to the soft-focus black-and-white beauty of the original film.

And what an adventure it is. Plot rewrites (a cheeky snog for Annina and Octavian, travelling players, a masked-ball dénouement and an elaborate battle scene for the heartbroken Feldmarschall), flashbacks that show us the Marschallin's convent upbringing and her first meeting with her husband, and deviations to the tumbledown Lerchenau estate and a pre-rose meeting for Octavian and Sophie trade the opera's intimate intensity for a broader vision, an ensemble piece that takes full advantage of film's new scope.

Yes, the captions are deliciously camp ('I have decided to exchange my title and blue blood for her father's filthy lucre!'), and some of the acting extraordinarily terrible (a special mention here for Jaque Catelain's pouting and prancing Octavian), but somewhere between the comedy and the excess it's also unexpectedly touching. …

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