Listening to a fascinating recital in this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival, we found ourselves surrounded by ancient figures, many of them rather decrepit. No, not another public-arts-funder ageist remark about classical music’s supposed elderly audiences. In fact we were seated in the Ashmolean Museum’s Greek and Roman Sculpture Hall, a perfect venue for a concert of Schubert’s Mayrhofer settings, all of which reference ancient Greek literature. Close proximity to 2500-year-old representations of the people we were hearing about was a great inducement to concentrate on some of Schubert’s most intense and even obscure songs; and to everyone’s surprise and pleasure, the beautiful room had a warm but not boomy acoustic.
The Mayrhofer concert (quite wonderfully delivered by Dorottya Lang, André Morsch and Julius Drake) is part of a yearly, three-week festival, which this year offers ‘The UK’s first complete performance of Schubert’s songs’ – also a flying carpet of intelligent talks, an invitingly readable programme book and a Schubert/Student Composer Festival at the Music Faculty. It’s another reinforcement of my current perception that, far from declining or dumbing down, classical music in the UK is doing the opposite of these things. Of course OLF’s director Sholto Kynoch is holding his festival in exactly the right town; Sunday night’s brainy audience were probably translating straight from Mayrhofer’s German into the Ancient Greek originals. But even just a few years ago, you wouldn’t expect this to happen around here at all, let alone with such all-round excellence and depth.