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