It was the culmination of four days of exquisite musical offerings from this year’s Leeds Lieder Festival, with festival director Joseph Middleton joined on stage by soprano Carolyn Sampson and baritone Roderick Williams.
The closing recital, on June 20, which took a clever look at the topic of gender fluidity and identity, was one of several five-star moments across the weekend. The festival was curated by a team who, since 2004, have crafted a cornerstone of cultural splendour not just for the North, but also internationally. During 2020, the festival made the necessary move to live-stream events. Following the success of this digitalised offering, events could once again be accessed remotely. But the chance to soak up the atmosphere in-person at Leeds Town Hall was something quite special.
Leeds-born Soprano Jane Anthony, who first brought together partners, including Leeds College of Music to stage the inaugural 2004 festival, should be proud of the way in which her drive and passion has created an organisation that is now instrumental in regional community and social development. The 2021 festival weekend opened with The View From the Villa, which brilliantly communicated what must have been a challenging time for the Wagner and Wesendonck households, as they gazed out over Lake Zurich in the 1850s. Susan Bickley, Victoria Newlyn and Matthew Brook, accompanied by pianist Iain Burnside, immediately set the bar high with their dazzling lunchtime performance.
Burnside then hosted the first Masterclass of the Festival, encouraging Leeds Lieder Young Artists, before Prof Richard Stokes from the Royal Academy of Music, hosted a pre-concert discussing the programming for the Opening Gala Recital.
A Spiritual Solstice with mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and Christian Blackshaw on piano also included works from Schumann, Strauss, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Lehmann, Grainger and Quilter. An impeccably behaved and socially distanced audience in Victoria Hall were clearly overjoyed by the chance to experience such a moving live performance.
On Friday, Dame Felicity Lott delivered a second Masterclass before soprano Natalya Romaniw, with Burnside once again on piano, took to the stage for a sumptuous lunchtime recital, serving up Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg and Rachmaninov. Meanwhile, Friday evening’s headliner was Benjamin Britten’s The Five Canticles, which was preceded by an enlightening talk from Dr Lucy Walker, who, as a Britten specialist, added to the atmosphere and meaning of the recital.
Tenor Mark Padmore was quite superb, both regarding his technical excellence and his additional explanations. Accompanied by countertenor Iestyn Davies and baritone Peter Brathwaite, in addition to the piano of Joseph Middleton and Olivia Jageurs (harp) and some welcome and deeply moving brass from horn player Ben Goldscheider, the programme perfectly captured Britten’s evolution across the decades of the mid-20th century. It was outstanding.
The evening continued with Late Night Lieder from The Hermes Experiment. The quartet, made up of Harp, Clarinet, Double Bass and Soprano, immediately reminded me of an early Manchester Collective. These four extremely talented young musicians are brave and exciting in equal measure. Like all of the weekend’s artists, this offering was exemplary. Weaving local poetry throughout their programme provided a reminder that we were all firmly planted in Yorkshire. Inspired.
On Saturday, we were offered yet another packed programme of the highest quality. The day kicked off with the Young Artists Coffee Concert, followed by Ema Nikolovska’s lunchtime recital. Once again, the fantastic Middleton was at the piano. This Canadian mezzo-soprano weaved a magical tapestry of global music, taking us from the Balkans to Robert Burns Scotland via some particularly confident vegetables.
After a fourth full day of music and conversation, the festival’s closing recital was He Sings/She Sings/They Sing/You Choose. Soprano Carolyn Sampson and baritone Roderick Williams intelligently and humorously challenged perceptions (perhaps by people of a certain age) that it’s not possible for music written for one gender, to be performed by another. It is, and they did. Brilliantly.
It was a privilege to experience Leeds Lieder in all its forms. Special mention should go to Joseph Middleton for his leadership as well as the team at Leeds Town Hall who provided a COVID-19-safe, worry-free venue for concertgoers.
Main image: credit Justin Slee