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Music review: Oxford International Song Festival, ‘The Phoenix’

10 November 2023

Roderic Dunnett hears Sufi texts in an Oxford celebration of song


OXFORD LIEDER, curated by its founder, Sholto Kynoch, and now in its 22nd year, has now changed its name, deservedly, to The Oxford International Song Festival. Starting out, it was a daring, risky venture: a handful of moderately attended events and yet, thanks to its quality, already revealing potential.

Now it has blossomed into a magnificently well-attended 16-day circus. Undismayed by thin beginnings, Kynoch has proved a firebrand as an organiser, as well as a superlative piano accompanist. Top names from England and the Continent flock to it. I am filled with admiration. It is a tremendous contribution to the musical world.

While proclaiming a particular focus (German Lied, Schubert, English song, etc.), the festival casts its net wide. An early highlight this autumn was “The Phoenix”: a recital featuring not just Persian poems set to music by an Iranian composer, but a Persian ambience, thanks to the shurangiz (a kind of lute, played by Vahid Taremi), coupled with cello (possibly replacing kamancheh, “little bow”), hauntingly played.

For the composer, Mahdis Golzar Kashani (b. 1984), the idea was to underline the nature of Iranian music. Alas, the composition, “bringing together European and Iranian classical styles”, did not sound as distinctive as, say, Georgian, Armenian, Greek, or Romanian (folk) music. It was enchantingly performed, however, and embraced inspiring texts by Hafez (1325-90), Iran’s best-loved lyric poet, a pinnacle of Persian literature; Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-73), exiled to central Turkey, the most influential apostle of Sufism, which today embraces people from Morocco to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and views itself as transcending other religions in a search for a higher level of spiritual discovery; and Saadi of Shiraz (1210-c.92), moral poet and prose writer in the Iranian tradition.

Guy Elliott, a profoundly expressive young tenor, shone later n Beethoven’s cycle An die ferne Geliebte, a structural influence on the new work. His voice is superb and alluring, and his diction and interpretation are magnificent. The baritone James Atkinson and the soprano Soraya Mafi also excelled, sensitively prising out the sense of the medieval Persian texts.

Hafiz and Rumi have long been my favourites, their visionary poetry embraced by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. A learned afternoon discussion preceded the concert, to advantage. The work was primarily inspired by On the Reality of Love by Shihabuddin Yahya Suhrawardi (“Master of Illumination”, 1154-91), a predecessor and inspirer of all three above, executed in his thirties for heresy; and the six sections explored his expressed priorities: “Intellect, Beauty, Love, Sorrow, Astonishment and Light”. In the presence of such material, this was an afternoon well spent.

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