Leeds Lieder 2016

Founded in 2004 by Jane Anthony, Leeds Lieder has had the laudable aim of fostering performances of, and growth of audience interest in, an area of music making somewhat neglected in the regions. It has not been an easy challenge. The venture has been afflicted by misfortune, notably the untimely death of the founder as well as illnesses of some of the performers, and hitherto the quality of the bi-annual festival has been uneven. But, on the evidence of the four recitals I attended, this year it has fully realised its potential and become an event of international stature. It now attracts a large, loyal and knowledgeable audience, and not just from the locality. It has had the good fortune to attract as Director Joseph Middleton, and for the 2016 Festival, Roderick Williams. Some of the best British lieder singers were engaged, and the programming was imaginative and adventurous – characteristics essential to justify the epithet “festival”, but often absent.

It got off to a wonderful start with a concert on the theme of the sea, combining songs both familiar and unfamiliar (e.g. Rebecca Clarke’s The Seal Man) astutely juxtaposed with an intriguing choice of poetry. Rory Kinnear’s reading of the latter was so thoughtful and engaging that had he been partnered by modest, retiring singers, he would have stolen the show. Happily, Mark Padmore and Roderick Williams were on hand and at their exuberant best, accompanied by the ever forthright Julius Drake.

The recital the following afternoon was no less impressive. What a good idea to give an outing for Britten’s final but rarely heard song collection Who are these children? alongside Buxton Orr’s Songs of a Childhood, these pieces having in common not only the theme of childhood but also poems written partly in Scots. At points, one wished that the printed texts made available had supplied translations, as they do for French and German poems; and no doubt the relative paucity of singers with appropriate linguistic skills helps to explain why the works are not more often performed. No problem, however, for Scot Nicky Spence – and his pliant tenor did full justice to them, aided by a rich streak of humour. That was also a valuable quality for the new, striking work by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, a moving set of recollections of World War I by elderly hospital patients.

There was also a world première featured in the Sunday afternoon recital given by Christina Gasch and Christopher Glynn, alongside more familiar material. Edward Rushton’s The Just Form is an ambitious exploration in words and music of artistic creativity. The first part suggested that impressionistic sounds could “represent” landscape, while the conclusion to the pessimistic second half is that perfect realisation is impossible. I think that a more mature performer for this work would have been preferable: the soprano seemed ill at ease with the silences and variety of vocal expressions required. Immediately the piece was finished, she also made the mistake of breaking its spell with an inappropriate encore.

Enterprising throughout, the Festival ended with Brahms’ only song cycle Die schöne Magelone, offered with a theatrical dimension, devised by pianist Iain Burnside and entitled “Shining Armour“. Once can understand the decision to “add something” to the composition, a rather banal fairy-tale of medieval love and chivalry which, as a narrative is incomplete, and the music to which is rather unvarying in form. It was certainly novel to have the songs presented to us by a “contemporary” Clara Schumann, taking the opportunity to reflect – not always favourably – on the personality of Brahms and on their relationship, the barriers to which might be seen as his shining armour. Victoria Newlyn gave a very sensitive and amusing portrayal of Frau Schumann. Clearly vocally tired at the end of the long weekend, Roderick Williams sang with his usual emotional involvement and Burnside brought out the harmonic richness of the piano part. The ending – Clara and Brahms waltzing romantically, only for him to abandon her to check something in the music – was poignant. A fitting climax to an aesthetically satisfying weekend.