Neal Davies: Oxford Lieder and a life in Song

October 2, 2019 by

Newport-born singer Neal Davies stars in the opening concert of this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival on October 11. The concert will be given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac Van Steen, with Neal and Camilla Tilling performing orchestral songs by Schubert and Grieg.

Neal talks about his love of song, his 30 year career since winning the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Lieder Prize and future plans.


Q: As winner of the 1991 Lieder Prize (now called Song Prize) at Cardiff Singer of the World, does this genre hold a special place for you ?

ND: I’ve always loved singing Lieder and all types of Song repertoire. I speak German and therefore I suppose the 19th century German Lied hold a particular place in my heart as I love the poetry so much. I have also sung a fair bit of Russian repertoire, but without that intimate knowledge of the text, it’s always a slightly less rewarding experience than singing in a language with which one is really familiar.

Q: What for you distinguishes or is special about Lieder over operatic aria recitals or concerts?

ND: I’m not a big fan of singing arias out of context, particularly with just a piano; it just seems too much like singing an audition! The richness of the song repertoire means that a recitalist is able to construct a programme thematically, which is capable, if skilfully done, of drawing the listener into a very specific world of music and poetry. It can also be a world of miniature ……bigger is not necessarily better, and the best songs have the power to deliver an incredible punch often using the simplest means of painting the text or creating an atmosphere. Think of something like Schubert’s Tod und das Mädchen, a short, and from a technical point of view, undemanding song, which nevertheless has the power to devastate it’s listeners.

Q: Can you tell us something about the work that you will be performing at the Oxford Lieder and is this your first work with the festival?

ND: I have done two previous concerts for Oxford Lieder, one at the Holywell Music Room and a large concert involving many singers at the Sheldonian Theatre. This concert is particularly interesting as all the songs are in orchestral arrangements. Schubert songs orchestrated by Max Reger, Brahms and Berlioz ( his orchestration of Der Erlkönig) as well as two songs by Hugo Wolf orchestrated by the composer himself and one of the Peer Gynt songs by Grieg. It’s been really fascinating to think of these songs, some of which I have sung many times before with piano, in an orchestral form. The orchestration of Erlkönig is thrilling, almost operatic and typically Berlioz in its scale and imagination; but the setting that has struck me most is definitely the Brahms orchestration of Schubert’s Memnon( not a song I previously knew ) , which is absolutely gorgeous.

Q: You now have a distinguished concert and operatic career. What have been some of the highlights ?

ND: It’s now nearly 30 years since I won the Cardiff Singer Lieder Prize (the date at which I started singing professionally), so quite honestly there have been so many highlights and so many performances that it is really difficult to single any out for special mention. I suppose what I am most proud of is having maintained long-term relationships with conductors and orchestras and companies. For nearly 20 years I went every year to the Edinburgh International Festival when it was run by Brian McMaster; I sang every conceivable type of music with the very best orchestras and conductors as well as giving song recitals. It was a fixture in my life and I owe Brian so much gratitude for the faith he placed in me. It was there I first started working with Charles Mackerras and that was a relationship that lasted until the end of his life; unbelievably rewarding music making and I was fortunate to sing all of his ‘special’ composers works with him. Mozart, Beethoven, Janacek, Handel, Sullivan. A wonderful privilege. Also the many wonderful recordings with Paul McCreesh for DG Archiv: Theodora, Saul, Messiah, Creation to name but a few. It’s been really wonderful to be able to put down such pivotal works on disc.

Q: You travel the world’s concert stages – do you have a preference now for concert over opera productions?

A: I have always been fortunate to have a good balance of opera and concert work. Opera is an incredibly time-consuming art form, often involving up to ten weeks commitment for one production. I have usually tried to do no more than three productions a year, which leaves plenty of time for concert work. As to which I like the most? – the answer is usually, whatever I’m doing at the time! The fact that I have always sung a lot of baroque music along side the more mainstream opera composers means that there is a huge amount of variety in what I sing in the course of a season, which means I never get bored. It’s also very good for my vocal health; never too much constant loud singing over the orchestra pit in the opera house.

Q: Do you have any particular repertoire ambitions and new roles on the horizon?

A: I’m about to sing in Peter Grimes for the very first time in the role of Swallow. I sometimes joke that I must be the only British singer never to have sung in Peter Grimes ,so now at last is my chance! It’s with Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic, with whom I have sung on many occasions in concert. We are also recording it for Chandos. I am notoriously unambitious when it comes to roles! I would like to sing some more Leporellos, as he’s a character I love and also to have another shot at Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Q: Where can we hear you in the near future ?

A: Before I sing Peter Grimes (in Bergen, Oslo and London RFH) I am in Berlin for a revival of a wonderful production of Purcell’s King Arthur at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden with Rene Jacobs conducting the Akadamie für Alte Musik.

Q: Any particular message for song lovers in Wales ?

A: Get in the car and drive to Oxford?



BBC National Orchestra of Wales Principal Conductor Jac van Steen


The Oxford Lieder Festival, which also includes Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas (pictured below) performing one of Schubert’s last works, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (‘The Shepherd on the Rock’), on October 22 in a programme that also includes works by Rossini, other songs by Schubert, and Schumann’s Fantasiestücke for clarinet and piano.




Oxford Lieder Festival:

The 18th Oxford Lieder Festival (11 – 26 October 2019) inhabits a world of storytelling and fairy tales, from Norse legend to the Brothers Grimm, from the Grim Reaper to Greek myth. Concerts, talks and study days will explore life, death and the mysterious areas between and beyond, with other events including live magic, a film screening, a ghost trail and more.

World-leading singers appearing at the Festival include Louise Alder and Nikolay Borchev (26 Oct), Ilker Arcayürek (25 Oct), Benjamin Appl (20 Oct), Katherine Broderick and Marcus Farnsworth (17 Oct), Stéphane Degout (12 Oct), Tara Erraught (13 Oct), Maria Forsström (16 Oct), James Gilchrist (19 Oct), Ben Johnson (15 Oct), Sophie Karthaüser and Stephan Loges (22 Oct), Thomas Oliemans (15 Oct), Christoph Prégardien (13 Oct), Dorothea Röschmann (25 Oct), Katharina Ruckgaber and Ashley Riches (14 Oct) , Carolyn Sampson (24 Oct) , Kitty Whately (18 Oct) and others, alongside pianists including Eugene Asti, Christopher Glynn, Matti Hirvonen, Hartmut Höll, Simon Lepper, Graham Johnson, Sholto Kynoch, Malcolm Martineau, Cédric Tibérghien, Anna Tilbrook and Roger Vignoles. Many of the most exciting young emerging artists also appear.

The opening-night concert will be given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with Camilla Tilling and Neal Davies (11 Oct) performing orchestral songs by Schubert and Grieg. Roderick Williams will be in residence for five days (from 19 Oct) to perform Schubert’s three song cycles in the sparkling English translations by Jeremy Sams. There will be two world premieres from newly-appointed Associate Composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, including a cycle of songs for soprano and string quartet, Endless Forms Most Beautiful (18 Oct). Other works of hers will feature throughout the Festival, as well as new commissions from composers Martin Suckling (19 Oct) and Ross Griffey (21 Oct). Chamber music concerts include the Albion (21 Oct), Brodsky (20 Oct), Doric (15 Oct) and Gildas Quartets (18 Oct), the Phoenix Piano Trio (16 Oct) , and pianists, Imogen Cooper (19 Oct), Ivana Gavrić (13 Oct), Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva (24 & 25 Oct) and Martin Sturfält (14 Oct). Choral music features with the Carice Singers (15 Oct) and the Choir of Merton College (26 Oct).

General booking now open / 01865 591276

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