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.

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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

REVIEW: Leeds Lieder Festival, Day 1:Wagner and the Wesendoncks /Alice Coote, Leeds Town Hall, 17/6/2021

Alice Coote: “Sustained a near-miraculously quiet intensity throughout”

FOUR days of wall-to-wall song got into full swing in front of live, if socially distanced, audiences. It was only two months later than the usual time for this festival, a minor miracle amongst the pandemic’s disruption.

Apart from the plethora of marvellous masterclasses and talks, the lunchtime and evening recitals were the backbone of the festivities and will form the basis of my reactions here.

The history of German poetry would not likely have been any different without the name of Mathilde Wesendonck. She can thank Wagner that we know about her at all.

Her husband Otto was a wealthy silk merchant who supported Wagner financially. He built a small house adjoining his grandiose villa above Lake Zurich, which he invited Wagner and his wife Minna to occupy. Mathilde became Wagner’s muse and probably much more, eventually causing the Wagners to separate.

While working on Tristan And Isolde, Wagner set five of Mathilde’s poems for female voice and piano, and they became much the best-known of his Lieder. In this programme, entitled The View From the Villa and built around those songs, they were touchingly sung by mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley.

Bass-baritone Matthew Brook sang and played a tolerant Otto, with a mini-clad Victoria Newlyn playing a flighty Minna (who was a successful actress in her own right). Iain Burnside, who had devised the programme, provided the sensitive accompaniments and linking music, all from Wagner. The songs were delivered in new translations by Jeremy Sams.

It was an entertaining insight into an unusual ménage, even if not all the spoken English repartee emerged with complete clarity. It was fascinating to hear the famous Prelude to Act 3 of Tristan in its original setting, along with three other Wagner lieder. Wagner was present through his music alone.

The evening brought a recital by mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, whose star is now fully in the ascendant, accompanied by Christian Blackshaw. Her programme, entitled A Spiritual Solstice, dealt with love, yearning and loneliness, and was centred round Mahler’s five settings of Friedrich Rückert, which date from 1900-02.

Coote felt them deeply and sustained a near-miraculously quiet intensity throughout, from the opening delicately perfumed love-song to the loneliness of Um Mitternacht (At Midnight) and Ich Bin Der Welt (I Am Lost To The World). She clearly felt them with every fibre of her being and sustained a wonderful control of the quietest tones imaginable. She held her audience rapt.

These were the emeralds of the evening. Pearls surrounding them came mainly from songs by Schumann, Strauss and Tchaikovsky. Three songs from Myrthen, the collection he presented to his bride Clara in 1840, were perfectly balanced by another three from Richard Strauss’s Op 27, which he gave to his new wife Pauline in 1894.

The first examples of her curiously intimate mouth-tone came in Schumann’s Meine Rose – a setting by a lovelorn Nikolaus Lenau, and in the self-delusion of Schumann’s Allerseelen (All Souls’ Day).

Coote was capable of reaching romantic heights too, as in the impassioned restraint of Tchaikovsky’s None But The Lonely Heart. Serenity reappeared in Strauss’s Ruhe, Meine Seele and in a beautifully hushed Morgen!

Somewhere in this carefully devised programme there was room for a touch more variety, even perhaps something a little boisterous. But her supreme artistry was undeniable. Blackshaw was neatly restrained when supporting the voice, but was inclined to over-egg the piano when on his own, sometimes disrupting a song’s equilibrium. It was an error on the right side.                                                

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Leeds Lieder Festival, Leeds Town Hall, October 29 to 31

“Lieder singing is not normally associated with countertenors,” says Martin Dreyer. “Iestyn Davies (pictured) is bidding to change all that. Why not?”

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.

“Louise Alder is a singing actress of immense talent, never less than delightful here,” says reviewer Martin Dreyer

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