Without a world-class concert hall or concert orchestra to play in one, Leeds isn’t what you’d call a music destination. But it does have Opera North. It has the Leeds Piano Competition. And it has the wonderful Leeds Lieder Festival: four days of well-attended vocal artistry around the clock, and proof that song recitals are no longer the endangered species they once were. They’re off the sick list.
It’s significant that Leeds Lieder is run by an accompanist of the younger generation, Joseph Middleton, who has a sense not just of the established singers out there with a ready following but also of emerging artists with new things to say – and the soprano Louise Alder was a case in point, in a superb recital that had Middleton at the piano. Winner of the audience prize at last year’s Cardiff Singer competition, she’s a real find: musically intelligent, alive to text, with a bright if rather fierce delivery that was ideal in the declamatory brilliance of the 1930s Britten/Auden cycle On This Island.
Britten always features prominently at Leeds Lieder (as he should: no one has ever set the English language more acutely), and was also represented this year in a performance by the tenor Nick Pritchard of his Winter Words, done with a nuanced lightness that proclaimed from start to finish the distinctive magic of these Thomas Hardy settings.
Not so magical was a new batch of William Blake settings commissioned for Pritchard from the composer Daniel Kidane: they rambled shapelessly. But the encouragement of new work is important. And one of the best things Leeds Lieder does is facilitate collaborations between living composers and living poets, with the results getting a whole day of workshopped performances that amount to object lessons in how to write a song. Or not.
From the material produced this year it struck me that immediacy, coherence of ideas and meaningful engagement with the text are necessary if elusive qualities: not many of the songs I heard delivered on all those counts. But one that did was a real earworm, written by composer/singer Georgia Denham on a text by Rosalind York and of such haunting beauty you could only hold your breath as it unfolded.
Something else that made me hold my breath in Leeds was the dynamic power of the bass Matthew Rose in a peculiarly dark performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang with pianist Malcolm Martineau. Rose always looks uncomfortable in concert, like a naughty schoolboy on the brink of an apology for doing something wrong.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection