Oxford Lieder Festival: Elias Ashmole and the Ashmolean Museum

The only pre-recorded event in this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival, this film has three “leads”: the ever magnificent Ashmolean Museum, the glorious Kirkman double manual harpsichord (1772) played by Julian Perkins and the claret-rich voice of soprano, Anna Cavaliero.  Then there’s Xa Strugis, director of the Ashmolean who tells us the history of the museum and its collections along with thoughts about how it will develop in the future. It makes for an interesting, well thought out and compelling hour.

The Ashmolean is a collection of collections. The original one was assembled by the Tradescants,  seventeenth century gardeners, with connections in high places, who travelled the world. Elias Ashmole acquired the collection and gave it to the University of Oxford where it opened in a purpose built building in Broad Street in 1683 – a place of art, science, experiment and research. Unprecedentedly and shockingly (to some) it was open to the public from the start.

Since them it has acquired many more collections – through gifts, legacies and purchases –  including the Hill Family’s collection of early stringed instruments. The Ashmolean Museum moved to its current building in the mid nineteenth century.  Today it is working hard at engaging new audiences to tell new stories and at ways of widening its traditionally Eurocentric focus. Sturgis acknowledges that while Asia and North Africa are represented sub-Saharan Africa and Oceana are not and that has to be remedied.

The recital aspect of this enjoyable offering took us from Barbara Strozzi to Haydn who would, Perkins tells us,  have been very familiar with harpsichords of this type. Along the route are songs by Purcell, John Blow, John Eccles and others. The setting is atmospheric with Van Eyck’s Woman and the Bacon Cup behind Perkins and a large canvas depicting a classical scene behind Cavaliero. The room they’re in has a warm, resonant acoustic too.

Strozzi’s L’Eraclito amoroso is sung without pyrotechnics but with plenty of passion, packed in by Cavaliero who is no mean actor. The televisual closeness means that she’s very exposed but she rises to the challenge with aplomb.

She finds some lovely bottom notes in Haydn’s The Spirit Song too and she makes his Das leben is ein traum feel light and charming. Meanwhile Perkins ensures that every song is an elegant duet – and it’s fun to hear him subtly adjusting the dynamics by using the flaps over the strings which are operated with a pedal.

 

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