Every October for the past 13 years, the Oxford Lieder Festival has been bringing classy performances of classical art songs to what used to be a rather unmusical town. I love it: great art taken seriously, mostly in the glorious intimacy of the Holywell Music Room, and without any pomp, artifice or unnecessary formality. But I must say I was rather dismayed when I heard what was planned for this year’s festival, which started a week ago: a complete survey of all the songs that Schubert ever wrote.
Schubert was, of course, the inventor of the classical Liederabend or song recital: the extraordinary musical institution that features nothing but a singer and a pianist, achieving, when all goes well, a thrillingly direct communication with their audience. And apart from inventing the institution, Schubert wrote the classics against which all subsequent efforts are measured—notably Winterreise and Schöne Müllerin, whose depth, variety, drama, animation and melancholy place them amongst the bare necessities of any possible desert island. But given that Schubert died at the age of 31 (in 1828) and that, apart from inventing the Liederabend, he composed in practically every other genre of classical music, you might think that he could not have written terribly many songs.
Actually he wrote more than 600, so the idea of a three-week festival featuring every single one is perhaps even crazier than you might have thought. A suitable event for anoraks, pub-quizzers and musical train-spotters, perhaps, but why should anyone who cares for the art of singing want to scrape the barrel for hundreds of minor works, rather than remaining with the tried and tested pre-loved masterpieces? And anyway, how could a modest, cash-strapped provincial festival even contemplate putting on a programme of more than 60 concerts, and dozens of supplementary events, involving more than 150 musicians (many of them huge international stars, others on their way), in an art form that has, it must be admitted, a rather small following and a rather problematic public profile?
One week in and my doubts have all been vanquished. It’s not just that we have had some world-class performances, with enthusiastic, considerate and attentive audiences; nor is it just that the “minor” works turn out to be pretty good after all, even if some of them are…