REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Ema Nikolovska/Joseph Middleton, Leeds Lieder Festival 2024

Ema Nikolovska and Joseph Middleton. Picture: Leeds Lieder Festival

Leeds Lieder Festival 2024: Ema Nikolovska/Joseph Middleton, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds Grand Theatre, April 20

MACEDONIAN-CANADIAN mezzo soprano Ema Nikolovska, partnered by festival director Joseph Middleton, brought a delightful potpourri to her evening recital, in which they teamed Schubert and Debussy with rarities by Margaret Bonds and Nicolas Slonimsky alongside the premiere of a festival commission by Tansy Davies.

Nikolovska’s clean, nicely focused tone is allied to a lively personality that illuminates the poetryof her songs. There was a freshness to her opening Schubert group, not least in Im Frühling (In Spring).

After its penultimate verse, there was a pronounced rallentando and a long pause before she resumed. Not so long ago that would have been considered unstylish, but she made it seem natural. One could only admire, too, her treatment of the dramatic scena Der Unglückliche (The Forlorn One), a poem from Karoline Pichler’s novel Olivier. It has been called pastiche, but Nikolovska handled its emotional roller-coaster with immense conviction.

In answer to a commission from Leeds Lieder, celebrating its 20th anniversary, Tansy Davies chose to set Nick Drake’s The Ice Core Sample Says, taken from his collection The Farewell Glacier, about climate change. The poem deals memorably with the “chronicle of lost time” revealed in an ice core, with an overarching nostalgia in what is essentially a lament over mankind’s mistreatment of our planet.

Davies’s response is unexpected. Against an accompaniment that explores the extremes of the keyboard, she takes the voice slowly from very low to very high in each of a series of phrases. Later in the piece, which lasts about eight minutes, the vocal line becomes very jagged, as the narrator shows agitation at the shocking revelations coming from the ice.

Great demands are made upon the singer here, in what is essentially an instrumental line, quite the opposite of cantabile. Nikolovska was equal to them all, indeed she gave the impression of being comfortable.

Towards the end she also shakes something like maracas, as “Now the great narrator Silence takes over”. This powerful poem, replete with images, which was commendably read out beforehand, is arguably too complex for vocal setting. But Davies and Drake between them certainly made an impact.

The American composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) was a new name to me. Although a pianist, the bulk of her works were for solo voice; several of her spirituals were commissioned and sung by Leontyne Price. Her early Songs Of The Seasons (1935-6), settings of her favoured poet Langston Hughes, proved a delightful antidote to the Davies work, and elicited considerable virtuosity from Middleton.

Thereafter we were on more familiar ground. Debussy’s six Verlaine settings, Ariettes Oubliées, which really put him on the mélodie map, found her in idiomatic vein. She sustained a pleasing legato through Il Pleure dans Mon Cœur against the rippling piano, and ideally evoked the ennui of Spleen.

But in two Medtner songs in Rachmaninov style – Twilight with its flavour of a bar-room ballad and the sweeping lines of Sleeplessness – she showed plenty of heft.

A return to wry delicacy was the order of the day in Slonimsky’s Five Advertising Songs, commercial jingles by any other name, but with a few extra twists. This was immaculate caricature, from ‘falling asleep’ with pillowcases to grand sweeping lines for toothpaste. Nikolovska has a great sense of humour and proved it here. She topped it all off, however, with a touching Macedonian folk-song encore, which came right from the heart.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Leeds Lieder Festival, Schubertiade, The Venue, Leeds Conservatoire, April 14

German soprano Nikola Hildebrand

LEEDS Lieder Festival celebrated the start of its 20th anniversary season with a Schubertiade on its opening Sunday.

The common denominator of the lunchtime and evening recitals was the German soprano Nikola Hillebrand, with festival director Joseph Middleton as her piano partner.

We were told that she was experiencing the first signs of a cold, which entailed her cutting two songs. But we would not have guessed she was in any trouble.

She switched seamlessly between the two emotions of Rückert’s Lachen Und Weinen (Laughter

And Tears) before moving to two night songs. Mayrhofer was second only to Geothe in the number of his poems set by Schubert, who always seemed to find a brighter side to the poet’s generally depressive tendencies.

The low-lying Nachtstück (Nocturne) brought out the soprano’s confidential tone and her closeness to the text of Nachtviolen (Dame’s Violets), now in C major after the former’s C minor, was the epitome of intimacy.

In Gretchens Bitte (Gretchen’s Prayer), in the version completed by Britten, she plumbed the dramatic emotions of the girl’s remorse. But always she communicated directly with us.

The first three of Mignon’s songs from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister were extremely well suited to the almost vibrato-free tone she brought to them, evoking the young teenager’s yearning. The fourth she omitted. Her sense of theatre was more than once threatened by Middleton’s quite forceful interjections, not quite what her announced vocal fragility needed.

Any such fragility vanished in Der Hirt Aus Dem Felsen (The Shepherd On The Rock), where they were joined by Oliver Casanovas Nuevo, principal clarinet of Opera North. It was impossible to believe that this was the work of a composer only a month from his death, so compellingly blithe and high-spirited was it here.

The trio blended superbly. The moment that crystallised the music’s pastoral poise was the clarinet’s mini-cadenza before the dancing finale, when Hillebrand’s carefree coloratura was effervescent.

The evening gala added the baritone of Rodney Williams and the pianist Roger Vignoles. It was dedicated to the memory of Jane Bonner, a faithful servant to Opera North for more than 40 years, latterly as company manager.

Middleton and Vignoles joined forces in the Fantasie in F minor for piano duet, D.940. It was not the tidiest account but it acted as a powerful elegy to her. Williams also comically imagined her presence as page-turner but without a shred of disrespect.

He and Vignoles opened the first lieder group, Figures In A Landscape. In the setting of Schmidt von Lübeck’s Der Wanderer, which rivalled Erlkönig for popularity during Schubert’s lifetime, Williams evoked a touching picture of alienation and Vignoles added to his plight; Ganymed provided a predictably upbeat antidote.

To Be Sung On The Water brought us Meeres Stille (Calm Sea), where Williams sustained a very steady line, without vibrato, and Auf Der Donau (On The Danube), perhaps Schubert’s most telling setting of Mayrhofer, in which we sensed the menace leading up to a spine-chilling Untergang (Destruction), totally at odds with the serene introduction.

There was a real feeling of partnership between Hillebrand and Middleton in Fischerweise (Fisherman’s Ditty), with the piano’s bass line reflecting the soprano’s smiles. Her facial features were equally important in Die Gebüsche (The Thicket), as she mirrored man’s connections with nature.

Hillebrand is a born communicator. The final group, Songs Of Night And Nature, had her sustaining a lovely line in Winterabend and finding a very personal touch in Berta’s Lied, with its sham lullaby.

Williams and Vignoles plumbed the mysteries of Nachtstück, equating sleep and death, with an astonishing intensity, but then escaping the fetters of night with a highly theatrical Waldesnacht. It was an evening packed with treasures.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Royal, Rice & Drake/Keenlyside & Middleton

Soprano Kate Royal. Picture: Jason Joyce

Leeds Lieder Festival 2023: Royal, Rice & Drake/Keenlyside & Middleton, The Venue, Leeds Conservatoire, June 15 and 17

KATE Royal’s soprano and Christine Rice’s mezzo blended happily in their recital with Julius Drake, who bounced straight into Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder Op 103, setting a jovial tone.

These gypsy songs were so popular when first published as vocal quartets in autumn 1888 that Brahms reissued eight of them for solo voice the following spring. These latter made a delightful start to the evening.

Four genuine duets followed. As two sisters, identical in their tastes, they giggled along – until realising that they loved the same man. Cue pouting dissent and a piano lament. Die Meere, translated from the Italian, was a gently rocking barcarole, with another evocative minor-key piano postlude as the little boat sank.

Goethe’s Phänomen, describing the effect of a rainbow, was gently consoling, while mother (Rice) and daughter (Royal) enjoyed their enigmatic dialogue in Walpurgisnacht.

Two quieter duets concluding four by Schumann made a strong impression. The heat-haze of Sommerruh, the voices taking their cue from Drake’s delicate introduction, came to a lovely, peaceful conclusion.

In the same vein, In der Nacht (originally for soprano and tenor), with love’s power banishing sleep, was deeply elegiac, conjuring the romance between Schumann and his eventual wife, Clara.

A concluding group of Weill songs, split between the singers, was altogether more light-hearted – but with genuine emotion. Rice’s rueful Nanna, thrown onto the love market at 17, and the Cocteau song Es Regnet (Weeping Together) followed her multi-coloured description of Berlin’s illuminations.

Royal’s tango-based Youkali, drifting into oblivion, and her cabaret lilt in Buddy On The Night Shift were topped by the slowly ironic Je Ne T’aime Pas, building to an impassioned climax, the title line shouted defiantly.

Alabama Song, from Mahagonny – a Lotte Lenya original that caused a riot at its premiere – allowed the pair to alternate as a drunken prostitute with equal measures of wit and pathos. All evening the group was truly a trio, so smoothly integrated was Drake’s piano into the ensemble.

For its closing gala, the festival was able to substitute one titled singer with another. Dame Sarah Connolly was indisposed, but Sir Simon Keenlyside stepped in with Schubert’s Winterreise, no less. With Joseph Middleton in support, he offered a painful journey through the snow and ice, voiced in excellent German. The text could not have emerged more clearly.

But there were distractions along the way, not least that Keenlyside himself seemed distracted. From the start he was fidgety, rarely maintaining a posture more than a second or two and pacing about nervously.

Perhaps this was a deliberate part of the act; it was impossible to be sure. But with his downward gaze, which he raised only to sight the crow or the phantom suns, he rarely made eye contact with his audience. This made our task the harder: the cycle must surely tell a tale and listeners need to be engaged.

None of this affected the quality of his tone, which was superbly varied; his baritone is a flexible instrument indeed. His disconsolate opening was well-judged, reaching a peak in a firmer third stanza. It slightly came undone when Middleton made a rare miscue, understating the change to the major key for the consoling last verse, the vital third of the chord being virtually inaudible.

Elsewhere he was with Keenlyside every step of the way. Together they conjured fake respite in the middle of Erstarrung (Numbness) and covered their tone while lamenting their distance from the linden tree.

We felt the warmth of the thaw in Wasserflut (Flood), and after the slow plod along the river (Auf dem Flusse), the piano’s taut chords boiled into the singer’s anger in the final verse. It was truly a duo.

Frühlingstraum (Dream Of Springtime) abounded in contrasts: the imagined flowers in bloom against the privations of winter, all culminating in a pianissimo ending, quite without vibrato, desolation personified. It was not all bleakness. There was the joy of anticipation in hearing the postman’s horn and the bleak friendship with the crow.

The travellers’ gradual derangement was aptly symbolised with much rubato in Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope), with calm achieved only in the final major chord on Grab (Grave). Piano and voice mirrored one another in Täuschung (Delusion), as they had during the stormy morning.

There was tangible irony in the graveyard ‘inn’ with a martial tempo in Mut (Courage) to follow. The phantom suns brought on deep despair and the organ-grinder marked the end of the traveller’s life-road, again completely without vibrato in the voice.

As a picture of mental breakdown, this was about as harrowing as it gets. Perhaps, in retrospect, the mental break-up should not have been quite so evident in the earlier part of the cycle. But the duo offered plenty of food for thought, for which we may be grateful.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Véronique Gens & Susan Manoff at Leeds Leider Festival 2023

Soprano Veronique Gens and pianist Susan Manoff

Leeds Lieder Festival 2023: Véronique Gens & Susan Manoff, The Venue, Leeds Conservatoire, June 13

IT is a tribute to the stature of this festival that a soprano of the international calibre of Véronique Gens should wish to perform here. Her pianist Susan Manoff has partnered several French singers on a regular basis: her credentials in the mélodie repertoire are equally impressive. A purely French recital is extremely rare in these parts; for multiple reasons this was an unmissable event.

Half of the programme was devoted to early songs by Reynaldo Hahn, all written in the 1890s before he was 25. Three came from his cycle to poems from Leconte de Lisle, Études Latines (oddly titled, since most of the subjects are Greek). Néère had the feel of a rueful lament, whereas Lydé was a grand hymn to the softening pleasures of wine. In both, the piano was a little too obtrusive. Balance was better in Tyndaris, where Gens distilled eternity from its somnolent ending.

These three crystallised a problem that surfaced all evening: where Gens was undemonstrative, barely using her arms and leaving her shapely phrasing to provide atmosphere or drama, Manoff seemed determined to share her spotlight, often raising her hands above her shoulders by way of emphasis: she should let her fingers do the talking. Balance was too often not as smooth as it might have been, with Manoff over-emphatic; the piano lid might have been better on the short stick.

At the very end, Gens delivered a mighty climax to Hahn’s Le Printemps, giving a rare glimpse of what she delivers on the operatic stage. She had clearly been harbouring her resources until then. Naturally Manoff was with her every step of the way here.

Earlier we had heard two Gounod songs, including some fine coloratura in Où Voulez-Vous Aller? and a beautifully controlled ending to De Polignac’s Lamento, hoping against hope that a dear departed will return.

The duo excitedly conjured Chausson’s butterflies and cut loose in an ecstatic account of Fauré’s love-affair between butterfly and flower. His Ispahan roses were predictably fragrant too.

But the highlight was Duparc’s exquisite setting of Baudelaire’s L’invitation au Voyage. It contained everything that makes Gens a remarkable specialist in this repertoire. She made the words melt into the melodic line, caressing rather than stressing their optimistic evocation of hazy, lazy sunshine at the end of a voyage. The firmer second stanza enhanced the anticipation. Manoff’s rippling piano made an ideal underlay. This was mélodie perfection.

Later in the festival Graham Johnson delivered a compact, highly informative lecture-recital on Schubert’s song-cycle Die Schöne Müllerin. Extracts from more than a dozen songs were delivered with admirable clarity by the baritone George Robarts. Johnson accompanied these and played more examples besides, including glimpses of similarities in earlier Schubert songs.

It is fashionable to decry the poetic achievement of Wilhelm Müller in this cycle. Johnson not only demolished that argument by implication but more importantly showed how Schubert added layers of meaning to what is after all a tragic tale, the young lad drowning himself in the brook. It is doubtful whether any of his listeners will ever hear this cycle in quite the same way again.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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

Jess Dandy: “That endangered species, a true contralto”

Jess Dandy/Martin Roscoe & Robin Tritschler/Christopher Glynn, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, April 29

THOSE of us who had not encountered Jess Dandy before, your correspondent included, cannot have avoided reading that she had been likened to Kathleen Ferrier in a national newspaper.

It is an unfortunate comparison and should be dropped before it becomes burdensome. She is indeed that endangered species, a true contralto, which alone entitles her to our attention. She may in time become the one and only Jess Dandy – but she is not Ferrier.

I confess that what initially drew my attention was her accompanist: Martin Roscoe is a supreme musician and a very busy one. Anyone who claims his time deserves our respect, especially since he is most often found as a solo performer.

With that rant out of the way, we may concentrate on Dandy’s lunchtime programme, which opened with Amy Beach and Lili Boulanger before moving onto more familiar territory with Falla, Wolf and Tchaikovsky, each of her five groups therefore in a different language.

Oddly enough, her diction in Beach’s three Robert Browning songs was almost consonant-free, but her tone was richly textured which excited anticipation.

Martin Roscoe: “Supreme musician and a very busy one”

In four unrelated songs by Boulanger, three from her teenage years, she penetrated the surface better. In two Maeterlinck poems, her high ending to ‘Reflets’, finding consolation in the moon, was beautifully controlled and the illusory ‘Attente’ (Waiting) was properly bleak. The prospect of Ulysses’s return to Ithaca brought compensatory joy to her tone.

Falla’s settings of seven traditional Spanish folksongs generally needed a lighter touch to match Roscoe’s impeccable staccatos. These works look easier on paper than they really are.

It was only when Dandy came to Wolf’s Mörike settings (1888) that her diction really began to shine. ‘Er ist’s’ (Spring Is Here) was wonderfully ecstatic, rounded off by the piano’s peerless postlude. She had a real feel for the bitter-sweet ‘Verborgenheit’ (Seclusion) and danced nimbly as the water-sprite Reedfoot alongside the piano’s curlicues. Both performers revelled in the dramatic possibilities of ‘Der Feuerreiter’ (The Fire-rider), while ending peacefully.

Dandy was equally well-suited to four Tchaikovsky songs. Voice and piano neatly intertwined in a Tolstoy poem about spring. There was a wonderfully pained melisma at the end of ‘I was a little blade of grass’ (the girl had been married off against her will). Even if the final climax of ‘Can it be day?’ was not quite full enough, we knew she had these songs in her bloodstream; Roscoe’s postlude was another little masterpiece.

This young lady certainly has talent. She can now afford to be less concerned about delivering perfect tone and concentrate more on acting with her voice.

Robin Tritschler: “Particularly satisfying occasion”

The second evening supplied my fourth recital of the festival. But it was the first in which the singer used no music. Thirty years ago, this would not have been a cause for comment. But times have changed and musicians are no longer routinely learning their scores by heart. One might have thought that during the ‘downtime’ provided by the pandemic, this might have changed. But no.

The hero in question was tenor Robin Tritschler, whose first half – ‘Illuminated Music’ – was English, Britten’s own works framing his realisations of Croft and Purcell. After half-time, we had ‘Illuminating Songs’ from further afield, eight composers stretching from Schubert to Henry Mancini. His admirable partner was Christopher Glynn.

Coloratura flowed easily in ‘Let The Florid Music Praise’ (On This Island) and Croft’s A Hymn To Divine Musick turned the temperature up further. All his Purcell set was characterised by a focus and intensity that was communicated all the more directly by the absence of a music-stand between audience and singer.

‘Music For A While’ enjoyed crispness in both voice and piano, which spilled over strongly into the finish of ‘Sweeter Than Roses’. The darting sections and crazy swings of ‘Mad Bess’ were finely wrought, with Glynn injecting just the right level of fire without dominating.

Christopher Glynn: “Injecting just the right level of fire without dominating “. Picture: Gerard Collett

Britten’s Canticle I: My Beloved Is Mine was hugely convincing, a tenderly felt duet that did full justice to Quarles’s spiritual paraphrase from the Song Of Solomon. Glynn’s flowing piano alongside Tritchler’s vocal freedom came to a close of the utmost serenity.

Moonlight suffused virtually all the second half. The atmosphere was movingly set by Schubert’s incomparable setting of Leitner’s ‘Der Winterabend’: the piano’s seamless line matched the tenor’s legato.

Fauré’s ‘Clair de Lune’ conjured intimacy while Hahn’s ‘L’heure Exquise’ delivered perfumed scents. Mancini’s nostalgic ‘Moon River’, with its Beethovenian opening was nicely balanced by Howells’s setting of De la Mare’s ‘Full Moon’, which disappeared into a niente finish.

Tritschler really opened out in the climactic moments of Liza Lehmann’s ‘Ah, Moon Of My Delight’ (In A Persian Garden), after which Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Big Lady Moon’ made the perfect encore. This was a particularly satisfying occasion, with both musicians on excellent form.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Leeds Lieder Festival 2022: Day 1

Dorothea Röschmann: German soprano, making her north of England debut

Dorothea Röschmann and Joseph Middleton; Wallis Giunta, Sean Shibe and Adam Walker, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, April 28

LEEDS Lieder was back in its usual springtime slot and all the better for that. More to the point, the line-up was as star-studded as ever.

On the first evening of this 11th festival, German soprano Dorothea Röschmann made her north of England debut in tandem with festival supremo Joseph Middleton as her piano-partner in a programme of Schumann, Mahler, Wolf and Wagner.

There is something reassuring about hearing native Germans in lieder: whatever else, they have this repertory in their bloodstream.

Schumann’s settings of five letters and poems attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots delve into the heart of Mary’s isolation after imprisonment by her sister, Queen Elizabeth I.

They are an unusual starter for a programme, but Röschmann handled them with considerable refinement, capturing the happy reminiscences of France – Schumann’s major-minor alternations – and prayerful after the birth of Mary’s son.

There was no escaping Mary’s desolation at 19 years’ imprisonment and her final prayer before death was poignant indeed in Roschmann’s account.

Six of Mahler’s settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn made a welcome contrast, none more so than the opening ‘Rheinlegendchen’ (Little Rhine Legend), which was turned into a cutesy dance, full of sparkle.

There was a relentless piano momentum in the tale of the starving child, ‘Das Irdische Leben’ (Life On Earth), representing the mill-stream. She cleverly juxtaposed two duets featuring young girls disappointed in love, the one flirting in vain, the other – touchingly here – discovering that her soldier sweetheart is just a mirage: he is already dead.

Wolf’s four Mignon songs, sung by the teenager abducted from Italy by Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, are the epitome of yearning, as she longs to return home. I

n the opening one, Kennst du as Land? – which she actually sang last – there was a lovely moment where she switched mid-phrase from a fortissimo at the plunging torrent to pose the title question much more quietly, rounding off the song with a delightful portamento in the final phrase. It was typical of her attention to detail. Middleton shadowed her closely throughout.

Written in the run-up to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s five settings of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a well-heeled silk merchant (and patron of the composer), developed out of his infatuation for her.

They are essentially love-songs, whose voluptuous harmonies – twice directly prefiguring Tristan – were mirrored in Roschmann’s lush treatment. Her gear-changing into chest tone was not always entirely smooth, but she and Middleton captured their heady atmosphere to a tee, notably in the “stop the world, I want to get off” implications of ‘Stehe Still!’ (Stand Still). This was a most satisfying opening recital, if not quite a memorable one.

Mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta’s late-night recital, given with guitarist Sean Shibe and flautist Adam Walker, was a mixed bag. She is an engaging personality, whose prowess as an actress she has already proved here, and there was no doubting the skills of her two partners – especially Shibe, in a wide variety of styles – but their protest songs from the Americas were too diffuse to make a coherent whole.

Taking their title from one of the songs, ‘The Revolution Smells Of Jasmine’, they encompassed racism, revolution, female emancipation and “patriarchal oppression”: art as politics, in other words, but this scattergun approach missed too many targets.

Nevertheless, the programme had its moments. Four songs by the Argentinian composer Ariel Ramirez had the unmistakeable tang of Portuguese fado about them, as if their essence had spilled over from neighbouring Brazil: Alfonsina’s heartache was palpable and Gringa Chaqueña evoked a smoky underworld. Juana Azurduy, the song which included the evening’s title, was more upbeat, even triumphal.

No South American set would have been complete without Astor Piazzolla. Sure enough, the instruments dipped into L’Histoire du Tango, before Giunta conjured a vivid ‘Café’ and a frisky ‘Bordel 1900’, where the syncopation was succulent.

North America was not forgotten. Giunta gave her fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ and a couple of Joan Baez numbers. All were cleanly done in good folk-style, but lacked a certain earthiness.

The most harrowing moment came in Abel Meeropol’s ‘Strange Fruit’, written in 1937 and made famous in song by Billie Holiday two years later: the ‘fruit’ was the bodies of black victims of lynching, swinging in the breeze. Not at all comfortable.

At her best, Giunta has a witty, wacky side that she kept under wraps here, in the name of protest of course, although almost as if she were under some restraint. But she is a total professional and had also chosen her accompanists wisely. They responded with lively duets as well as unfailing support.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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

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 Ian Bostridge & Imogen Cooper, Leeds Lieder

Ian Bostridge: “His stage persona is becoming ever more eccentric,” says reviewer Martin Dreyer. Picture: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Leeds Lieder Festival 2022, Ian Bostridge & Imogen Cooper, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, April 30

SONG recitals nowadays are generally considered to be duos, with voice and piano on an equal footing. Long gone are the times when the singer had star billing and Joe Bloggs, in much smaller letters, was “at the piano”.

For this Schubert recital, however, despite the confluence of two stars in the Schubertian firmament, who deservedly drew the biggest house of the festival so far, the occasion was really only about one person.

Ian Bostridge is an extremely talented tenor, not to say a highly intelligent one. But his stage persona is becoming ever more eccentric, to the point where he is becoming hard to watch. It is not just that he cannot stay still: he roams the bend in the piano, sometimes even leans into it with his back to the audience, then darts out to front-stage and back again, all the while contorting his slim figure into angular postures.

Furthermore, he is off on his own tangent, rarely engaging the audience directly. He often starts a phrase looking into the auditorium, but his chin soon descends into his chest and he stares at his feet. His expression is generally pained – no-one does angst better – but he finds it hard to lighten up. There was only one detectable smile in this whole recital.

All of this puts his pianist at a disadvantage. There is practically no eye contact possible between them: the pianist never knows where on the platform he may have got to.

These things are important because a lieder recital is so much more than mere vocal display. It is an unveiling, at the most intimate level, of the composer’s reaction to a piece of poetry and it requires the closest co-operation between singer and pianist, with the former’s every hand gesture or facial expression tailored to assist the message.

When there is as much physical activity as Bostridge generated here, it ceases to be meaningful and becomes merely a distraction, even an annoyance.

Imogen Cooper is one of our great Schubertians, but she was up against it from the start. She took the line of least resistance and played with never-failing style, but she rarely strayed beyond safe territory when it came to asserting herself. Too often she had to allow Bostridge to hold onto the spotlight, when he should have deferred to her and let her illuminate Schubert’s intentions.

The menu was alluring enough: the 14 songs of Schubert’s Schwanengesang (not a song-cycle but a posthumous title imposed by his publisher) separated by four more settings by Johann Seidl (whose Die Taubenpost ends Schwanengesang).

Without the visuals, there was actually some excellent singing. Bostridge minimises the vibrato in his voice, reserving it for special, often warmer, moments. That is fine, particularly when a fortepiano is in use (it wasn’t here). But it is counterbalanced by the extreme tension in his sound, doubtless brought on by his stressful stage persona.

The first seven songs of Schwanengesang are settings of Ludwig Rellstab. Their lyricism was amply conveyed by Cooper, beautifully liquid for the brooklet running through Liebesbotschaft (Love’s Message) and light as a feather in Frühlingssehnsucht (Spring Longing).

Bostridge, in contrast, was apt to home in on the moments of anguish, although his dead slow “goodnight” at the close of Kriegers Ahnung (Warrior’s Foreboding) was effective indeed.

Similarly, the piano delivered a melting postlude to Ständchen (Serenade) and was wonderfully staccato throughout the galloping in Abschied (Farewell), while our tenor was happier in the cutting pain of Aufenthalt (Resting Place) and the utter isolation of In Der Ferne (Far Away).

Where the Rellstab songs seemed cousins of Die Schöne Mullerin in their yearning for the distant beloved (with echoes of Beethoven), we were much closer to darker Winterreise territory for the reminder of the evening: the Seidl interlude and the Heine songs that make up most of the rest of Schwanengesang, all of them from the last three years of Schubert’s life. The sombre tone was struck at once in Seidl’s Sehnsucht (Longing). Bostridge’s restlessness was certainly in tune with much of the poetry, although more of his purely physical activity might have been channelled into the voice.

During the last two Heine songs, Bostridge really began to show respect for the texts and kept his body much stiller. Am Meer (By The Sea) was almost a daydream and the sheer horror of Der Doppelganger (The Ghostly Double) was notably eerie. Der Taubenpost (The Pigeon Post) came as welcome relief at the close, given by both performers with rhythmic zest.

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