The great lyric tenor Ian Partridge gives his last recital tonight at the Holywell Music Room as part of the Oxford Lieder Festival, writes A. S. H. SMYTH

Tonight in the Holywell Music Room, one of Britain’s leading lyric tenors will perform his farewell recital, finishing his career back in the city where it had started. Ian Partridge began his musical life as a treble at New College in 1948, singing there, under H. K. Andrew, for “a wonderful four years”, before moving on to Clifton School in Bristol, on a music scholarship.

One of his earliest accompanists was Clifton’s famously one-armed music director, Douglas Fox.

“He played for my very first song recital, at the Victoria Rooms in Bristol (I must have been about 16 or 17). He was a wonderful musician, but travelling in a car with him was absolutely terrifying!” said Ian.

An organist by training, Fox wasn’t all that keen on singing. One summer he stormed on to the wicket during a cricket match to remonstrate with his pupil for not turning up to an organ lesson. Partridge took sweet and immediate revenge: “I hit a six over square leg, in a sort of rage, and finished on 78 not out. My best innings.”

After school, he went straight to the Royal College of Music, to study voice and piano, but had to leave after only a year in order to find paid employment (prohibited by the RCM at the time), and so found himself at Westminster Cathedral.

“I arrived there in 1958 and almost immediately there was a recording of the Victoria Tenebrae Responses. There I was at 19, singing the tenor bits in all the trios. Extraordinary.”

Lieder had grabbed the young Partridge early. He remembers playing through a book of Schubert songs at school, and from 1957 he went to all the Philharmonia recitals (by such greats as Fischer-Dieskau — “an amazing influence on the young” — Gedda and Schwarzkopf) at the Royal Festival Hall.

But he felt he hadn’t studied enough, and so enrolled at Guildhall (voice and conducting), where he made it to the final of the lieder competition — “Didn’t win it, unfortunately” — despite nine months of scheduling difficulties caused by being cast in the West End production of John Osborne’s Luther.

Lieder work didn’t take over completely for a few years, though. He sang with the Purcell Consort, got his first contractual broadcast with the BBC in 1963, and went on to record Schubert, Handel, Purcell, Bach, Bax, Finzi, Britten and more. It was recordings of Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge and Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin, he says, that really put him on the map, the latter voted Best Record by Record Review in 1973. (bit of trivia: he was the first to get the entire cycle on a 33rpm record.) He had but one dalliance with the stage, playing the court singer Iopas in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in 1969. Between his completely lack of stage experience — “You have to learn how to walk!” — and the ominous irony of the part (Iopas is ordered to sing a beautiful song to Dido, on whom it has absolutely no effect), Partridge decided the stage was not for him.

Since then he has made his home in the world of song, and we meet at the Royal Academy of Music, where he has been teaching song classes since 1996. He bemoans the fact that vocal recitals rarely sell out the Festival Hall these days, but believes song is making a recovery.

“I spend my time here trying to encourage people to do songs. But I would have thought it should be the most popular thing of all. It’s also such a lovely connection: you have music, you have poetry. And the communication . . .”

He has just performed for the last time with his sister, Jennifer. She first played with him when he won Silver at the Hastings music festival, 52 years ago — “It’s been wonderful. We’ve done over 430 recitals.” — and they have travelled the world since.

“At Homs, in Syria, we couldn’t get near the hall, it was so crowded. They thought we were The Partridge Family. By the second half, of course, half the audience had gone. It was,” he laughs uproariously, “the only time that ever happened.” (In that same concert two locals got into a fight over whether the recital should come with running Arabic translation. I mention it because Partridge makes a point of saying the audience should have the words, but worries that this encourages people to stick their noses in their programmes.) For his ‘farewell’, however, he’ll be singing with Sholto Kynoch, director of the Oxford Lieder Festival. They have appeared together only once before, performing Winterreise at the Chelsea Schubert Festival, two years ago. At that point, Kynoch says, Partridge made vague noises about turning 70 and putting on a series of retirement concerts. So when James Gilchrist agreed to sing Die Schöne Müllerin on the opening weekend of this year’s festival (rescheduled after a 2007 postponement) it seemed the ideal opportunity to secure Partridge’s services and concentrate on the Schubert theme.

The opening Schubert weekend consists of performances from the Undiscovered song cycle, by David Owen Norris (piano) and students from RCM; Winterreise, by baritone Florian Boesch (“a very modern delivery,” says Kynoch: “very involved, very technically proficient.”); and Schwanengesang, by Joshua Ellicott, also baritone. The festival itself has come full circle in this regard, having started out in 2002 with an all-Schubert programme.

Today’s repertoire will consist of four groups of ‘night songs’ — all connected with moon, night, stars, sunsets (a purposeful metaphor, to judge from Partridge’s twinkling eye) — including the Serenade.

But Partridge isn’t done yet. He has two remaining concert bookings in the autumn (including one in Dorset, singing On Wenlock Edge), as well as his continuing, perhaps even increasing, teaching schedule at the Royal Academy, and a busy schedule of adjudications.

In fact, he’ll be back at work the day after his ‘farewell’, doing a masterclass — Schubert, of course — with the students from the RCM. Kynoch chuckles: “We’d like to think we’ve given him his first bit of post-retirement work.”

Ian Partridge is at the Holywell Music Room tonight at 8pm. For tickets for this and for all Lieder Festival concerts call 01865 305305.

Oxford Lieder Festival

(All concerts at Holywell Music Room unless otherwise stated)

Schubert weekend

Friday: Farewell recital — Ian Partridge (tenor) with Sholto Kynoch (piano). 8pm; Saturday: Schubert's 'Undiscovered' Song Cycle, the Kosegarten Liederspiel. David Owen Norris (piano), students from Royal College of Music. 4pm. Schubert's Winterreise, Florian Boesch (baritone) and Andrew West (piano). 8pm; Sunday: Schubert's Schwanengesang Joshua Ellicott (baritone) and Joseph Middleton (piano). 2pm. Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin, James Gilchrist (tenor) and Anna Tilbrook. (piano). 4pm.

Wednesday: Lunchtime Concert: Outstanding students from The Royal Academy of Music. 1.10pm. Jacqueline du Pré Music Building. Check that Czech! — Lucie Spickova (mezzo soprano) and Lada Valesova (piano). 8pm.

Thursday: Jacqueline du Pré Music Building. The Prince Consort, Zigeunerlieder; Gypsy songs by Brahms, Janacek, Liszt, and so on. 8pm.

Friday, October 17: University Church of Mary the Virgin.

Lunchtime Concert: Outstanding students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. 8pm. Patron's Concert: Sir Thomas Allen (baritone) and Roger Vignoles (piano). 1.10pm. New College Ante Chapel. 'Late-Night Messiaen' with Gweneth Ann Jeffers (soprano), pictured, and Simon Lepper (piano). 10pm.

Saturday, October 18: Jacqueline du Pré Music Building. Songs by Ravel, Britten and Michael Berkeley — Susan Bickley (mezzo soprano) and Julius Drake (piano). 8pm.

Sunday, October 19: Songs by Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov Olja Dakic (soprano) and Sholto Kynoch (piano). 8pm.

Tuesday, October 21: Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel — Giles Underwood (baritone) and Martin Sturfalt (piano). 8pm.

Wednesday, October 22: Lunchtime Concert. Outstanding students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. 1.10pm. Master Course Participants' Concert, introduced by Sarah Walker CBE. 8pm.

Thursday, October 23: A Schumann Liederabend — Sarah Connolly (mezzo soprano) and Eugene Asti (piano). 8pm.

Friday, October 24: Lunchtime Concert — Outstanding students from the Royal Academy of Music. 1.10pm. An Oxford Song Book — David Owen Norris and friends. 8pm.

Saturday, October 25: Jacqueline du Pré Music Building. Songs by Schubert, Wolf and Quilter — Lisa Milne (soprano), Mark Stone (baritone), Sholto Kynoch (piano). 8pm.

Tickets from Tickets Oxford on 01865 305305 or