REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Nikola Hillebrand & Joseph Middleton

German soprano Nikola Hillebrand: British recital debut

Leeds Lieder Festival 2022, Nikola Hillebrand & Joseph Middleton, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, May 1

LEEDS Lieder Festival’s closing recital offered an unexpected surprise. In the absence of the advertised singer, we enjoyed the British recital debut of German soprano Nikola Hillebrand.

It was an occasion that none present will forget, enhanced by the presence of pianist Joseph Middleton on top form.

Hillebrand offered a heady mix of Schubert, Brahms and Strauss. She is the complete package, a lovely well-focused sound allied to charming presence and the ability to penetrate right to the heart of a song within a few bars, helped by a wide range of facial
expressions.

Conversely, she remains rooted to the spot and makes sparing use of hand gestures. Any
young singer considering a career in lieder would do well to emulate her technique in all these areas.

At the centre of her recital, right after the interval, she gave Strauss’s Mädchenblumen, Op 22, four settings of poetry by Felix Dahn, products of Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) which liken young ladies to a variety of flowers.

Although dedicated to a tenor, Hans Giessen, who was a member of Weimar Court Theatre with Strauss in the late 1880s, they work equally well with soprano. They are little heard because of their taxingly high tessitura, but in Hillebrand’s hands they were pure magic, seemingly posing no difficulties; she negotiated them so smoothly that the vocal lines carried a marvellous inevitability. Cornflowers, poppies, ivy, waterlily, she caressed them all playfully.

She had begun with a mixed bag of Schubert, warming up sensibly with ‘Der Vollmond Strahlt’ (The Full Moon Shines), the relatively low-lying Romanze from the incidental music to Rosamunde.

Two songs setting poets used only by once by Schubert made a nice contrast. Karoline Klenke’s ‘Heimliches Lieben’ (Secret Love) found her sharing a confidence, whereas in Anton Platner’s ‘Die Blumensprache’ (The Language Of Flowers), which is also about a type of secrecy, she twinkled with excitement.

The nostalgia of Goethe’s ‘Erster Verlust’ (First Loss) prepared the ground for his ‘Gretchen Am Spinnrade’ (Gretchen At The Spinning Wheel). Chestnut it may be, but it sounded anything but here, imbued with an anxious urgency and reaching two peaks of desperation, the second stronger than the first.

The refrain “Die männer sind méchant” (Men are rogues) – whose motto phrase is repeated at the end of each verse – ended this group wittily.

Love was a major feature of her Brahms songs, beginning very quietly with the last of Tieck’s 15 poems in the cycle Die Schöne Magelone, ‘Treue Liebe Dauert Lange’ (True Love Abides).

There was an even more enchanting pianissimo in the second verse of ‘Wiegenlied’ (Lullaby), another chestnut she polished anew. In between, she made a little drama from ‘Von Ewiger Liebe’ (Eternal Love) and was a forceful witch in ‘Salome’.

After the flower songs mentioned earlier, the remainder of her Strauss group steered a middle course through several favourites. By now we needed no reminder of her powers, but there were still some lovely moments from both performers. They kept ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) extremely light, generating real ecstasy; after a broader second half, its climactic moment was their finest of the evening.

Following a moving ‘Allerseelen’ (All Souls’ Day), there was girlish glee in the pitter-patter of beating hearts (‘Schlagende Herzen’) and a beautifully controlled lullaby in Eichendorff’s ‘Meinem Kinde’ (To My Child).

They finished with John Henry Mackay’s ‘Morgen!’ (Tomorrow!), its pin-drop ending
conjured by immaculate control in Middleton’s pianissimo. A Britten arrangement of a Scottish folksong made the ideal encore, with Hillebrand standing to Middleton’s left to read the score; no-one minded in the least.

This was a highly auspicious debut, which must surely lead to many invitations to return to this country, including Leeds again, please.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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