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

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Winter’s Journey, Roderick Williams & Joseph Middleton, Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds, 11/3/2022

Roderick Williams: “Hurled verbal darts at the traveller’s ex-lover”

IF you are a lover of Schubert lieder, you may bridle at hearing them sung in English. If you are an even more dyed-in-the-wool purist, you will want to hear his great song-cycle Winterreise sung in the original keys, in other words by a tenor.

So, if you experienced the cycle in English, sung by a baritone – two removes from the original – you might think it beyond the pale. In which case, you probably hadn’t heard these two musicians perform it.

The Jeremy Sams translation, written at the invitation of accompanist Christopher Glynn (of Ryedale Festival), has no airs and graces. It reflects the relatively simple language of Wilhelm Müller’s original, which is not by any yardstick a masterpiece of German literature.

Instead it sticks to a basic story-line about a jilted lover and paints in simple terms the emotions he feels as he travels through a wintry landscape that reflects his inner world. This man is a loner, an outsider – and angry at the way the world has mistreated him.

Such a reading of Sams/Müller inspired Williams’s response here, and Middleton was hand in glove with his vision. After rueful reflection in the final, major-key stanza of Gute Nacht (Goodnight), we were straight into bitter resentment with Die Wetterfahne (The Weather-vane), Middleton pecking at the keys as Williams hurled verbal darts at the traveller’s ex-lover. In Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen Tears) I part company with Sams, who translates ‘Eis’ into snow, where ‘ice’ is much more biting. Doubtless rhyme demanded it, but still.

We felt the comfort from the linden tree’s rustling leaves and the traveller’s tears “guzzled by the thirsty snow” – a telling metaphor – before Williams suggested that the journey was taking a toll on the lover’s sanity in Rückblick (Turning Back); here his anger had been presaged by the piano’s violent prelude.

Then came a masterpiece of characterisation in Frühlingstraum (Dreaming Of Spring), where the duo conjured three distinct moods, its light-hearted start jolted into reality at cock-crow and thence into bitterness that happiness can never be recaptured.

There were sadly unfulfilled hopes that the post would bring a comforting message, although, again, the English ‘heart’ did not carry quite the bite that the German ‘Herz’ delivers with its final consonant. Flowing triplets well captured the friendly crow’s flight, but the temporary ease was soon dissipated in the baritone’s hint of mental disintegration in Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope).

Sams imagines a ‘proper witches’ brew’ from Der Stürmische Morgen (Stormy Morning) – not really in the original text – but Williams obliged with some really vicious tone, complementing it immediately in the major/minor anguish of Täuschung (Delusion) and a beautifully pianissimo ending.

The tempo sagged a little in Das Wirtshaus (The Inn – actually a graveyard), although it was given a really bold postlude. That prepared the way nicely for some real swagger in Mut! (Courage!). Self-doubt re-emerged in a cleverly mood-wavering account of Die Nebensonnen (Phantom Suns). For the final song, Der Leiermann, Williams walked to the end of the piano and faced sideways, treating the pianist as the organ-grinder of the title. It was a telling move.

So much of the cycle had these moments that revealed a real depth of engagement on the part of this admirable duo. If Williams was more relaxed and thus more immediate in his colours, Middleton was a touch more deliberate, occasionally trying to inject more into Schubert than the composer really intended to convey. Nevertheless, it was a moving – and memorable – evening.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, Ryedale Festival, 17/7/2021

Carolyn Sampson: Ryedale Festival concert was “Elysium indeed, however you define it”. Picture: Marco Borggeve

Ryedale Festival: Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, St Peter and St Paul Church, Pickering, July 17

THE name Elysium covers a multitude of … well, pleasures. To the ancient Greeks, it was where the blessed, especially heroes, decamped after death. For the rest of us, it means paradise, with a small or large ‘p’.

Either way, it was the umbrella for soprano Carolyn Sampson’s late-night Schubert recital; she had also given it in the afternoon. Joseph Middleton was her piano partner, a top-notch combination. How typical of artistic director Christopher Glynn to bring in big names right at the start of the festival.

Schubert had a Damoclean sword of disease hanging over the last third of his life, so thoughts of the afterlife cannot have been far from his mind. Perhaps, like the young nun, he looked forward to peace after life’s storms, exquisitely encapsulated in Sampson’s pianissimo Alleluias at the end of Die Junge Nonne, without vibrato.

There again, Elysium is doubtless a place of endless melody, prefigured by Goethe’s Ganymede, where little tunes keep bursting out as he soars upward and we felt his excitement at what lay ahead.

Romantic poets often use moon and stars as stand-ins for heavenly realms. The opening of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata colours the setting of Holty’s first An Den Mond (To The Moon). There is melancholy, too, in Goethe’s poem of the same name. Both here conveyed the idea of the voice as the reflection of the soul.

The brisker dactyls of Die Sterne (The Stars) showed a happier side to starlight, contrasting with the wonderful stillness this duo delivered in Nacht Und Träume’ (Night And Dreams) where moonlight gleams gently. There was a wonderful delicacy in Sampson’s tone for Der Liebliche Stern (The Lovely Star), tinged with sadness as the star contemplated its own reflection.

There was sunlight in the programme too. In Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen (To Be Sung On The Water), it glinted on the waters of Middleton’s piano, eventually evoking escape from the passage of time.

A thrillingly rapid account of Der Musensohn (The Son Of The Muses) really danced with glee. In total contrast, Du Bist Die Ruh (You Are Peace) was consummately sustained by Sampson. Similarly, Middleton had tinted in little details of the nightingale’s twitterings with delicacy.

So to Schubert’s setting of Schiller’s Elysium, virtually a cantata, where rapid changes of mood require a chameleon-like approach. This duo was more than equal to its demands: light and shade, sun and storm and eventually an endless wedding feast, a heaven to die for, certainly.

Even more of a rarity was Schubert’s only song as a melodrama, Abschied Von Der Erde (Farewell To The World), given as an encore – pure delight, and filled with the reconciliation the composer undoubtedly achieved near his end. Elysium indeed, however you define it.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Leeds Lieder Festival, Day 4, June 20

Tenor James Gilchrist: “Special brand of urgency, sometimes bordering on missionary zeal”

Leeds Lieder Festival, Day 4: James Gilchrist / Finale, Leeds Town Hall, 20/6/2021

A PARTICULARLY well-structured programme, entitled O Solitude, occurred at lunchtime on the final day, with tenor James Gilchrist and his piano-partner of more than two decades, Anna Tillbrook.

Using Purcell’s eponymous song as his springboard, he then embarked on Schubert’s Einsamkeit, three of Barber’s Hermit Songs and a cycle Gilchrist had commissioned in 2017 from Jonathan Dove, Under Alter’d Skies.

During the Purcell, given in Britten’s realisation, we could only marvel at the range of vocal invention the composer achieved in no less than 28 repetitions of a ground bass. Gilchrist positively revelled in its drooping intervals, penetrating the bitter-sweet pleasures of the Katherine Philips poem (itself a translation from Marc-Antoine de Gérard).

It cannot be emphasized enough that the Schubert is his earliest song-cycle (1818), being six poems by Mayrhofer tagged together on the model of Beethoven’s An Die Ferne Geliebte, which was written two years earlier. The poetry outlines a life-cycle, beginning and ending with a wish for solitude, after progressing through a desire for activity, good fellowship, bliss and gloom in turn.

Pianist Anna Tilbrook: “Fine support”

Gilchrist brought to it his own special brand of urgency, sometimes bordering on missionary zeal, in which he contrasted the various moods with an underlying yearning for nature. Thus the rat-race was tinged with regret. Even the central waltz dissolved into rueful recitative. Tilbrook’s fine support peaked in the militaristic regions of the ‘rapture’ section. It was a splendid account of a work that is seriously underperformed.

He chose three of Barber’s ten Hermit Songs, which are settings of early mediaeval poems in modern translations. Their spare harmonies certainly speak of a less complicated era, but heard in Schubert’s wake they lacked a certain humanity. The Monk And His Cat conjured the warmest response.

Jonathan Dove selected seven cantos (out of 133) from Tennyson’s In Memoriam for his cycle Under Alter’d Skies. They deal with the solitude after a close friendship has ended, in Tennyson’s case after the early death of his close friend Arthur Hallam. Dove handles this tricky task with admirable composure and Gilchrist at first suppressed his natural enthusiasm to reflect the poet’s inner turmoil.

Change came in Tonight The Winds Begin To Rise, where the piano’s moto perpetuo was reflected in the tenor’s mounting urgency, and a ‘gleam of solace’ broke through in the upward-rushing phrases of the following song, With Weary Steps. After a return of disillusion and an ironic peace, Dove (with Tennyson) finally detects balm in nature, echoing Mayrhofer, which was pictured in a rising tide of emotion from both performers. Dove’s cycle is well worth the love that this duo lavished on it.

The whole of this programme, including the Barber cycle in its entirety, was issued only last summer on the Chandos label. On this evidence, it’s a must-buy.

* * * *

Baritone Roderick Williams: “Tongue firmly in his cheek, enjoying every minute of it”

THE closing recital was a pot-pourri devised and performed by soprano Carolyn Sampson, baritone Roderick Williams and pianist and festival director Joseph Middleton. Here were songs traditionally reserved for a female voice sung by a male, and vice versa. Apart from some other musical byplay, we had a new commission by Leeds Lieder from Hannah Kendall. Finally, the audience was given a list of three dozen songs, some in German, others in English, and allowed to choose what should be sung.

Sampson opened up with two songs from Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin – normally male territory, of course. She loved it and so did we. In ‘Mein’, she soared and so did the piano. She also produced a magical ending to ‘Pause’. Getting his own back, Williams took two songs out of Schumann’s Frauenliebe Und–Leben with his tongue firmly in his cheek, enjoying every minute of it.

With gender politics now firmly on the menu, Hannah Kendall’s new work Rosalind set parts of five poems by Sabrina Mahfouz. The first-person narrator here seemed to veer between femaleness and maleness like a chameleon, reacting to outside influences – until at the end speaking boldly as a woman: “You do not get to dress me anymore”.

Soprano Carolyn Sampson: “She loved it and so did we.” Picture: Marco Borggeve

Kendall found a great deal more variety in her piano accompaniments than in her treatment of the voices, which was generally limited to slow-moving, ruminative lines that cannot have taxed these singers. It was hard not to feel that this was an opportunity if not wasted, at least under-exploited. But her 15-minute score fell easily on the ear and the texts emerged clearly.

The remainder of the evening relied on a roving microphone picking up viewpoints from the audience, before the brave decision to accept requests. All were accepted graciously, with Sampson excelling in Schumann’s Röselein and Williams making hay with York composer George Butterworth’s Loveliest Of Trees and Britten’s arrangement of The Foggy, Foggy Dew.

Middleton proved himself extremely versatile, as ever. The consistently high calibre of the performances made up for the improvisational nature of much of the proceedings.

Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Leeds Lieder Festival, Day 2, June 18

Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw: “Powerful instrument at her disposal”

Leeds Lieder Festival, Day 2: Natalya Romaniw / Britten Canticles, Leeds Town Hall, 18/6/2021

A SOPRANO of the younger generation who has been making considerable waves, Natalya Romaniw has a powerful instrument at her disposal.

There is little doubt that she will soon be navigating the weightier corners of the repertoire, not excluding Wagner. That said, she has still to come fully to terms with the greater intimacy required for a song recital.

Her afternoon appearance with pianist Iain Burnside explored Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg and Rachmaninov. Much of it was extremely exciting, even thrilling. But she did not always control her tone enough to ensure that phrases emerged smoothly and all-of-a-piece. Frequently a single note, often at or near the top of a phrase, was too freely released, undermining the whole. This sometimes also went against the meaning of the text.

With this one reservation in mind, we can still look back on a memorable occasion. Among five Strauss songs, she found sheer rapture in Standchen (Serenade), where Burnside’s piano positively glittered. There was a lovely hushed ending to Morgen (Tomorrow), which was also beautifully spaced. This rivalled the serenity she had found in Ruhe, Meine Seele (Rest MySoul!).

She sang romances by both Rimsky and Rachmaninov in the original Russian, with apparent fluency. Both composers favoured heavy accompaniments, which in turn gave freer rein to Romaniw’s dramatic tendencies.

Softly The Spirit Flew, a Tolstoy poem favoured by several composers, felt streamlined in this Rimsky version, while in his Nymph the two performers conducted a polished dialogue.

Tenor Mark Padmore: “Assumed the Peter Pears mantle with style and panache”

Two Pushkin settings by Rachmaninov were outstanding. The narrative intensity of Arion was reflected in the piano’s postlude. Conjuring the pain of nostalgia in Do Not Sing To Me Romaniw captured exactly the regret implied by the falling semitones.

There was subtlety in The Answer, followed by another wonderful duet in Spring Waters, with the piano’s bubbling spring thaw matched by soprano optimism. Of four German lieder by Grieg, the upbeat Gruss (Greeting) had especially suited her voice, while The Discreet Nightingale expanded superbly, a sure-fire sign of Romaniw’s exceptional gifts.

Britten’s five Canticles were not intended as a set and are rarely heard that way. Still, it was good to have them together in a single evening. They rely, of course, on a tenor with the flexibility to lead them, having been written for Peter Pears. But only in this century have they begun to seem performable in any other style than his.

Mark Padmore has assumed the Pears mantle with style and panache (although on this occasion I could have wished that he had dressed a little more smartly, as his colleagues did).

Joseph Middleton was his perceptive pianist in the first four. Francis Quarles’s paraphrase of The Song Of Solomon in Canticle I has a silkiness that Britten’s velvet lines evoke explicitly; Padmore and Middleton felt it deeply, the voice floating on top of the piano’s featherbed.

York countertenor Iestyn Davies: “Played the sacrificial son to perfection”

Intensity deepened in Canticle II, Abraham And Isaac. It is easy to forget that the role of Isaac was written for Kathleen Ferrier, so often is it sung nowadays by a countertenor, as here, or even a boy treble.

Certainly Iestyn Davies played the sacrificial son to perfection and he and Padmore blended superbly as the Voice of God. Padmore was not averse to showing some anger at Abraham’s predicament and Middleton injected plenty of menace at that point.

Equally well integrated were tenor and horn at the end of Still Falls The Rain, Canticle III. Ben Goldscheider brought consummate control to the horn part – originally conceived for Dennis Brain – subsuming his earlier war-charged variations into an evocation of dawn with Padmore’s by-now rueful tenor. That was the only comfortable moment of this interpretation – which was exactly as it should be.

Iestyn Davies returned with baritone Peter Brathwaite for The Journey Of The Magi. Brathwaite was not daunted by the company he was keeping and gave a good account of himself. All three singers made distinctive characters of their kings while blending well and their journey ran smoothly, although more could have been made of T S Eliot’s often ironic poetry. But the plainsong melody emerged clearly in Middleton’s lucid accompaniment.

Finally, The Death Of Saint Narcissus, Canticle V, saw decisive, determined playing from the harpist Olivia Jageurs, with Padmore engaging fully with Eliot’s challenging lines. While inevitably there were inflexions reminiscent of Peter Pears, he had proved that there was room for other approaches. To a great extent the shackles of an earlier generation have been thrown aside by Padmore and his colleagues in this repertory.

Review by Martin Dreyer