Take me to your lieder

Europe's oldest concert hall plays host to the star-studded Oxford Lieder Festival
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The Independent Culture

It may look like a Nonconform-ist chapel, but it is, in fact, Europe's oldest concert hall, opened in 1748. Haydn and Mozart appeared there; most likely Handel, too. Except for a period in the mid-19th century, when it was an exhibition and auction room, it has been a recital hall ever since. Owned by Wadham College, the Holywell Music Room is a compact, Baroque gem, and will make the perfect setting for this month's Oxford Lieder Festival.

It may look like a Nonconform-ist chapel, but it is, in fact, Europe's oldest concert hall, opened in 1748. Haydn and Mozart appeared there; most likely Handel, too. Except for a period in the mid-19th century, when it was an exhibition and auction room, it has been a recital hall ever since. Owned by Wadham College, the Holywell Music Room is a compact, Baroque gem, and will make the perfect setting for this month's Oxford Lieder Festival.

Like many worthwhile traditions, this prestigious and burgeoning festival sprang from humble origins. "We founded it almost by mistake," admits the organiser, the prizewinning pianist Sholto Kynoch. "Six of us performed Brahms's Liebeslieder Waltzes there in 2002; and in 2003, we ran a modest Schubertfest, with three recitals over a weekend. Now, it has taken off - we're expanding to 16 concerts spread over two weeks, in the hope of achieving some kind of national, or even international, recognition. And I've made a special feature of Brahms, who doesn't get his due as a song composer."

Kynoch, an Oxford alumnus himself, has a gift for bludgeon-ing singers into imaginative, engaging programmes - and for attracting big names, too. "We've got Simon Callow reading the words of Tieck around Brahms's Die schöne Magelone, a gorgeous song-cycle set in the days of medieval chivalry; and Mark Padmore doing Schubert's Winterreise."

The Festival's accompanists are big names, too: Graham Johnson joins the soprano Geraldine McGreevy in Schubert and Wolf; Julius Drake, who accompanies Padmore, will give am open masterclass; and two of Kynoch's mentors, Malcolm Martineau and Michael Dussek, will appear with, respectively, the soprano Lisa Milne, who follows Strauss with Walton and Quilter, and the tenor Ian Partridge - doyen of lieder and English song - singing Schumann's Dichterliebe and Brahms.

Kynoch, who accompanies several recitals himself, is an unashamed enthusiast: "There is something uniquely appealing about the convergence of words and music. This year is mainly German song, but I've asked people to venture beyond the obvious lieder repertoire and give room to more neglected works. For example, the tenor James Gilchrist and baritone Stephan Loges will sing a 'Homage to Robert Fuchs', one of the great Viennese teachers."

The festival aims "to encour-age younger singers who are up-and-coming - a happy mix of youth and experience", says Kynoch, before returning to the subject of the festival's venerable setting: "There are surprisingly few venues committed to lieder, even for top singers, which is why such good people are so willing to turn out for us. They all adore the Holywell: the acoustic is beautifully resonant, but not overly so.

"And you never need worry about hearing a blur of fuzzy consonants - in the Holywell, you'll catch every word!"

Oxford Lieder Festival, Holywell Music Room, Oxford (01865 305305; www.oxfordlieder.co.uk), 10 to 23 October

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