Contributed by Martin Widden
It is good to be able to report that some things are getting back to something like normal, or at any rate to New Normal: the University’s International Concert Series resumed on the evening of Thursday 8 October. The furniture in the Great Hall had been rearranged to provide the necessary distance between the social bubbles in the audience. One might have feared that this would destroy any atmosphere that might otherwise have been generated, but – all praise to the organisers – it had been done very thoughtfully: each little group had its designated space, consisting of one or more chairs at a small folding table with a tablecloth, on which had been placed a sheet bearing the names of the members of the little group, and beside it a small vase of flowers. If the group had pre-ordered drinks, they were waiting on the table too. The Hall looked almost festive.
The programme for the evening consisted of two song cycles by the composer Franz Schubert, both of them setting poems by Wilhelm Müller. Each is for a solo singer and pianist, and consists of a series of twenty or so songs on a single narrative theme. The first to be performed at the recital, die schöne Müllerin, tells the story of a young journeyman miller walking through a wood beside a stream, which leads him to a mill. He falls in love with the miller’s daughter, but his love is frustrated by the arrival of a glamorous hunter, who supplants him. It is not completely clear how the story ends, except that it doesn’t end well for the young man, who submits himself to the stream and presumably drowns. The young baritone Huw Montague-Randall told this story well, with excellent German diction.
The second cycle, Winterreise (winter journey), is again a tragic tale of a young man’s love for a girl, but it is not just about his failure to capture her love. As the narrator wanders through a winter landscape, he bids his farewell not only to his beloved who has forsaken him, but this time he appears to be leaving all human company. Appropriately, Schubert’s setting of these downbeat poems is set almost entirely in minor keys. This second song cycle was sung by another baritone, Roderick Williams, who acted it out in a quite moving way.
In his song cycles Schubert uses the piano very skilfully to illustrate the songs, for example to evoke the sound of the water in the stream in die schöne Müllerin. In fact, the piano part is perhaps of equal importance with the sung part. We were fortunate at the Great Hall recital to have Gary Matthewman at the piano, for he was able to reflect the mood of the songs in his playing very sensitively. The final song in Winterreise, der Leiermann, describes a hurdy-gurdy man who is standing just outside the village hoping to collect money on his little plate, but sadly the plate is empty. The piano reproduced the sad music of the hurdy-gurdy quite accurately.
This was a very satisfying start to the season of Great Hall concerts – let’s hope further concerts will be able to go ahead.