Leeds Lieder: Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn

Although Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn songs with orchestra are well known, one rarely encounters them with piano; and this version, presented by Leeds Lieder at the University of Leeds, was a revelation. Of course one misses the variety of instrumental sound, particularly the shimmering of strings and haunting resonance of woodwind and brass. But the percussive character of the piano provides its own dramatic input and can intensify the experience, particularly when it is as well played as here by Joseph Middleton. He offered an unrestrained musical commentary on the text, with strong rhythmic patterns for its ironic humour, strident chromaticism for its depiction of human misery, tempered by a lightness of touch for its lyrical passages. I appreciated too his ability to maintain tension with silence.

Leeds Lieder had engaged an extraordinary pair of young singers, both former winners of Kathleen Ferrier awards. Aged only 24, the baritone James Newby is a very exciting prospect. He has a magnificent, fully matured, voice, with a warm lower register and a bright burnished top, making an impact when raised for a fortissimo climax, yet also moving when scaled down sensitively for quieter passages. Even though singing with a score (as did the soprano), Newby had fully internalised the songs, deploying interpretive skills through appropriate colouring of sound and accentuation of certain syllables.

If the songs allocated to the female voice involve less variety in dramatic content and a reduced opportunity for personal interpretation, they nevertheless require a quality of timbre and intonation, particularly in the upper register, combined with an emotional intensity in communicating joy and despair. Gemma Lois Summerfield had all of this and more. Spinning out and holding silvery high notes and, at the end, reaching out with exultant passion to encompass Mahler’s spiritual vision, she totally captivated the audience.

The numbers present at this wonderful recital were not large, but they (and others) can relive the experience when it is broadcast on BBC Radio 3.