In the footsteps of Hafez: exploring Persian poetry at Oxford Lieder

That annual festival of song, Oxford Lieder, is not one to be beaten by a global pandemic. It took the decision very early to head down the streaming route, producing an eight-day festival packed to the rafters with events under the banner Connections Across Time. Artistic Director Sholto Kynoch is a programming mastermind, pulling threads and sewing themes through recitals with dexterity. This second day was largely devoted to the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez and his influence on song across the centuries, most notably via Goethe’s anthology of lyrical poems inspired by Hafez, the West-Eastern Divan.

Ian Bostridge © Oxford Lieder

Ian Bostridge

© Oxford Lieder

Although the festival’s loyal audience cannot be in Oxford, the online presentation offers all the usual extras: there are pdf programme notes, texts and translations; lectures and discussions; Q&A opportunities; and even a pre-concert Zoom chat with pianist Julius Drake ahead of the evening recital with tenor Ian Bostridge. It was almost like being there, but without the associated trauma of travelling on Great Western Railway. 

Indeed, the online format allowed a variety of speakers in different locations; thus in one lecture we learnt about Hafez and the poetic form of the ghazal from the Persian Library in Wadham College, while in the Ashmolean Museum we learned about objects from its Islamic Art collection.

The Voice of Santur © Oxford Lieder

The Voice of Santur

© Oxford Lieder

Hafez’s poetry is regarded as the pinnacle of Persian literature. He was patronised by viziers and rulers and his texts would have been both recited and set to music. His writing had a mystical quality whilst also being fundamentally earthly, its subjects often concerning wine, nightingales, gardens and courtly love. A late night recital from the Jacqueline du Pré building offered a fascinating chance to experience Iranian Classical songs – including two settings of Hafez – by The Voice of Santur, but most of the songs programmed through the day came through the conduit of Goethe, whose West-Eastern Divan anthology sought to bridge Eastern and Western cultures, which in turn inspired Friedrich Rückert. 

Both afternoon lectures were illustrated with musical performances. British-Iranian soprano Soraya Mafi sang five Suleika Lieder with bell-like clarity, while Kynoch excelled in the virtuosic piano writing in Hugo Wolf’s Hochbeglückt in deiner Liebe. Later, Mafi also sang Heart Snatcher, a setting in Persian not of Hafez, but the 13th-century poet Rumi by young Iranian composer Mahdis Kashani, full of gorgeous vocal writing and reaching ecstatic heights. Further settings of Hafez included two expressive songs by Sally Beamish, sensitively performed by Roderick Williams.

Sholto Kynoch and Soraya Mafi © Oxford Lieder

Sholto Kynoch and Soraya Mafi

© Oxford Lieder

The day included two full recitals from the Holywell Music Room. In the first, Scottish-Iranian bass-baritone Michael Mofidian included songs from Robert Schumann’s cycle Myrthen, which set Rückert and Goethe as a wedding gift to his wife, Clara, as well as songs by Brahms to translations of Hafez by Georg Daumer. Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder were also included, the somewhat tenuous link being that both the composer and his muse, Mathilde Wesendonck, were ardent admirers of Hafez, whom Wagner called “the greatest poet that ever lived”. Mofidian possesses a voice of majestic size, although it’s not always used with great regard to dynamic shading. The Brahms Lieder suited him best, where Jâms Coleman also impressed with his wonderfully expressive playing.