LEEDS Lieder, scheduled for April, refused to be cowed by Covid and courageously got in under the wire at Leeds Town Hall, five days before total lockdown returned.
The format was necessarily compacted, with each of the three evenings having an established star and a younger talent in a warm-up role. Not that the newer names were in any way lesser lights.
For the record, the situation in the hall was far from normal. An audience of some 150 – about a tenth of normal capacity – was seated in singles and pairs, socially distanced and fully masked. There was neither interval nor refreshments.
Yet no-one was in the slightest mood to complain, partly due to exemplary stewarding, but mainly because it was sheer delight to hear singers in the flesh again after so long.
The tenor Ian Bostridge and York countertenor Iestyn Davies began and ended the festival, with Schubert’s big cycles, Winterreise (Winter Journey) and Die schöne Müllerin (The Fair Maid Of The Mill) respectively, with soprano Louise Alder between, in a colourful medley of Grieg, Rachmaninov and Strauss. All were ably supported by Joseph Middleton’s piano. (Although all songs were in German, their titles are given here in English only).
Bostridge had a less than perfect start to his day. Finding all trains from London to Leeds cancelled, he had to hire a car and arrived a mere 30 minutes before the recital began. But we would not have guessed, apart from slight stiffness in his walk to the platform.
He has chalked up more than a century of Winterreises, but his approach was never jaded; eccentric, perhaps, but never hackneyed. For Bostridge rarely stands still; he is a peripatetic performer, propelled by the depth and urgency of his emotions. That we could easily forgive – although the online audience might have experienced some to-ing and fro-ing as he veered in and out of microphone range. This was so much more than mere travelogue: here was a loner searching for consolation in nature while at the edge of sanity.
The traveller’s early hopes began to dissipate in the baritonal timbre that Bostridge conjured for Frozen Tears, with traces of derangement apparent in an internalised Numbness. The brief solace of friendship with the linden tree turned to anger in Flood.
When he rested his head on the piano for several seconds after On The River, we could not tell whether the traveller’s mental balance or the singer’s personal fatigue was the cause. It mattered not: by now, we were with both of them every step of the way. A moment of lucidity came in the middle of Backward Glance and the final arching phrase of Will-o’-the-Wisp was memorably intense.
Thereafter, the traveller’s stability became more erratic. An eerie pianissimo at the heart of Dream Of Spring belied its rather jaunty opening; the determination in Loneliness was undermined by the vain hopes dashed in The Post.
Voice and piano alike turned even more manic in Last Hope, and The Stormy Morning said more about the wanderer than the weather. There was hopelessness in The Signpost, all sense of direction disappearing, and even the warmth of The Inn was made to seem illusionary by a fortissimo postlude.
Thereafter, all that was left was hallucination in The Mock Suns and total despair in The Hurdy-gurdy Man, which was a prayerful recitative. Bostridge’s tone reflected all these moods. But in the face of the stupendous drama he generated, the technicalities of his sounds became strangely unimportant.
Louise Alder’s recital came almost as light relief the following evening. She opened with the six songs of Grieg’s Op 48, settings of unrelated German poets. Her fresh soprano and expressive features were at once engaging, as was her ability to conjure different moods in a trice.
Witty and streetwise in Uhland’s Way Of The World, she conversely found an innocent wonder for The Discreet Nightingale, to a troubadour text. Romantic yearning suffused Goethe’s The Time Of Roses, whereas Bodenstedt’s A Dream was gripping, almost nightmarish, before a triumphal end.
There was a childlike naivety to Rachmaninov’s six songs, Op 38, notably in the nostalgia of Daisies and the mounting excitement of Pied Piper. In Strauss’s Four Last Songs (Ernst Roth’s title, not the composer’s), she raised her game still further.
There was admirable control in the high, arching lines of Spring and an autumnal warmth in September. But the peak of her achievement came in Going To Bed, floated effortlessly, distilling Hesse’s lyric into a glimpse of eternity. It was a pin-drop moment.
The long phrases of Eichendorff’s At Sunset offered a complementary, earthy glow, with Alder smiling through the evocative postlude. She is a singing actress of immense talent, never less than delightful here.
Lieder singing is not normally associated with countertenors. Iestyn Davies is bidding to change all that. Why not? He appeared for Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin looking the part, in a Bohemian collarless jacket, as if ready for a ramble.
His wide range is a decided asset in this music. He also preferred the straight-line focus that we might expect in a Dowland lute-song to the relaxed tone more familiar in this music. Sometimes these two sorts of resonance appeared side by side in the same song.
After a vocally insistent Halt!, for example, with the piano depicting a particularly angry stream, Davies’s delivery in Thanksgiving To The Brook veered back and forth between the two. The little dramatic scena that was After Work made its successor The Inquisitive One all the more plaintive by comparison.
Three of the central songs needed to be a touch broader: Impatience, so that the refrain “Yours is my heart” might gain in importance; Mine!, with its angry instructions to nature, which were all but garbled, although composure was regained in Pause and To Accompany The Lute’s Green Ribbon, which was excessively impatient. But the huntsman galloped impressively and the jealousy and pride he provoked was properly emotional.
Davies showed his ability to turn a phrase neatly in The Beloved Colour and he made a lovely lament of Withered Flowers. The final exchanges with the brook were just right, prayerful on one side, friendly and reassuring on the other.
Both singer and pianist were quite assertive in their approach throughout, so that Schubert’s natural emphasis was not always allowed to speak for itself. But there was no denying their depth of feeling, which was impressive.
The up-and-coming singers heard by way of introduction to the three stars above all acquitted themselves admirably. Harriet Burns was a model of composure and confidence in Schubert’s settings of Ellen’s three songs from Scott’s Lady Of The Lake, D.837-9.
Her injunctions to warrior and huntsman to rest from their labours reached their target at once – no mean feat after months of lockdown – and were warm-hearted without sentimentality. The familiar Ave Maria came up fresh but prayerful, phrased smoothly and easily.
Benson Wilson opened nobly with Howells’s King David, his baritone finding a glorious legato, with only marginal loss of resonance in his sotto voce. Three songs from Finzi’s Shakespeare cycle, Let Us Garlands Bring, had an idiomatic feel, helped by excellent diction. It Was A Lover And His Lass was especially jaunty. And there were fireworks in a setting of the Maori haka, reflecting Wilson’s Polynesian roots.
After a poised account of Liszt’s Oh, Quand Je Dors, Nardus Williams returned us to Lieder with two Brahms settings. A gentleMaiden’s Song (Op 107 No 5), which appropriately speaks of isolation, was well balanced by a buoyant My Love Is Green. She revealed the power of her soprano in Wolf’s setting of Do You Know The Country?, which was notably forthright.
Leeds Lieder is to be congratulated for persevering with these recitals under extremely difficult conditions and for mounting events of such quality. Let us hope that normal service may be resumed next April. Fortune favours the brave.
Review by Martin Dreyer