Leeds Lieder Festival 2021

The Festival takes place at Leeds Town Hall from Thursday 17 June to Sun 20 June. Tom Tollett previews.

Nineteen events in just four days illustrates nicely the breathless intensity of a modern music festival. Now in its 10th renewal, Leeds Lieder assuredly takes its place, alongside the Conductors’ and Piano Competitions, as one of the City’s signature celebrations that places Leeds firmly on the classical music map, attracting leading international vocalists and their accompanists to town.

Lieder, in its original guise, encompassed strictly German romantic poetry, from the likes of Goethe, Schiller, Heine, as set musically by Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. In times when all houses of good repute – and many of those of ill-repute – boasted a piano, art song such as this provided accessible, high-class evening entertainment. The fact that the form found appeal elsewhere from the nineteenth-century onwards, allowed Lieder to be successfully adapted by composers and audiences in France, Russia, Spain, the U.S.A. and Britain.

The Leeds Lieder Festival this year boasts both star names and adventurous programming.

Iain Burnside, Dame Felicity Lott, Sir Thomas Allen, James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook are down to give what will be doubtless fascinating masterclasses covering all aspects of the genre, both vocal and pianistic, whilst putting some of the Festival’s chosen young artists through their programmes. Informative preparatory pre-concert talks, from both academics and active composers in the field, are offered for both the lunchtime and evening recitals.

Susan Bickley launches the Festival, singing Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder, as part of The View From The Villa, an entertaining musical account of one of Wagner’s many romantic adventures, (Thu 17 Jun, 1pm). Alice Coote performs Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, as well as songs by Schumann, Strauss and Tchaikovsky, (Thu 17 Jun, 8pm). Welsh-born soprano, Natalya Romaniw, hailed as one of Europe’s most promising young stars, programmes more Strauss, with some Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg and Rachmaninov, (Fri 18 Jun, 2.30pm). James Gilchrist’s and Anna Tilbrook’s masterclass follows straight on from their own recital of Purcell, Schubert, Barber – Hermit Songs and others – and Under Alter’d Skies, a Festival première by Jonathan Dove, (Sun 20 Jun, 1pm and 3pm). Soprano Carolyn Sampson and Leeds favourite, Roderick Williams, with Joseph Middleton accompanying, round off the Festival, (Sun 20 Jun, 8pm), with a wide-ranging offering, a lyrical analysis of gender politics, from the seventeenth-century onwards, taking in British, French, German and Russian composers, with the intriguing prospect of an expected contribution from the audience.

Roderick Williams

Alluring as all this is, for me, the two outstanding “must hears” are the Friday and Saturday evening concerts:

Unlike Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces and Strauss’ Four Last Songs, where the composer’s intentions regarding separate performances remain debatable, no-one has suggested that Britten’s Five Canticles, written between 1947 and 1974, should be given together. Mark Padmore did just that recently, at London’s Wigmore Hall, and he certainly impressed The Guardian‘s correspondent, who came away describing the evening as “a masterclass in producing expressively direct and unaffected Britten”.

Padmore now repeats the venture, (Fri 18 Jun, 8pm), with the help of countertenor Iestyn Davies, baritone Peter Brathwaite, pianist Joseph Middleton, harpist Olivia Jageurs and horn-player Ben Goldscheider.

Goldscheider may be a fringe contributor at a Festival celebrating the achievements of the human voice, but this ex-BBC Young Musician has already taken the third Britten Canticle, Still Falls The Rain, a heartfelt setting of a wartime poem by Edith Sitwell, into the recording studio last Autumn. “I’m at a stage in my career where it makes no sense for me to put the Strauss or Mozart concerti down on disc. It’s one thing to play them in a concert but it’s another thing to say this is my definitive second Strauss concerto at the age of 22. What I think is interesting is to play pieces not quite in the mainstream, repertoire that’s interesting, that some people know, but don’t play every day.” The recording, featuring tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Huw Watkins, is released this month on Three Worlds Records.

If Fiordiligi And Dorabella Had Been Lieder Singers is the thought-provoking title for a recital by Soraya Mafi, Ema Nikolovska and William Thomas, leading us, by Art-song, through the plot of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, (Sat 19 Jun, 8pm). Così‘s storyline is silly even by operatic standards, involving as it does two remarkably myopic sisters, who fail to recognise that two gentlemen, recent arrivals at their apartments, are the self-same lovers whom they have just waved off to a theatre of war. A bet has been struck as to whether each swain can seduce the other’s intended, and they succeed before order is restored at the end. Interestingly, despite the smiles at its conclusion, it is not quite made plain whether the final romantic pairings are the same as those to which we were introduced at the start. (It should be remembered that Mozart began wooing one sister, Aloysia Weber, and married the other, Constanze, on the rebound.)

As William Mann indicated in an analysis, neither Mozart nor his librettist, Da Ponte, wrote parts for the Punch and Judy show suggested by the plot’s brief summary. Da Ponte persuasively highlights “human realism rather than the hallowed suspension of disbelief. Men are expected to philander before they settle down. Why not women too? … Are women more constant than men?” Mozart responded with undemonstrative, intimate music, always concerned more with character and humanity than with pyrotechnic artifice.

Each section, Prologue, Sisters In Love, “Bella Vita Militar“, Constancy, Weakening, Capitulation and Abandon, and Reconciliation are illustrated by suitable musical vignettes, from Hugo Wolf to Irving Berlin, Brahms to Cole Porter. The beautiful Act I duet, Ah Guarda, Sorella, and trio, Soave Sia Il Vento, from the Mozart opera, frame the evening’s entertainment.

Opera Now hails Leeds Lieder as “an event of international stature” and there are rich musical pickings to be savoured amongst this year’s Festival offerings. Try them for yourselves.

All concerts are given in Leeds Town Hall.

In these strangest of times, audiences can opt to either attend in person at Leeds Town Hall, whilst complying with current government guidelines, or view by livestream, at cut-price, at home. Details of necessary safety restrictions and all ticket sales and viewing arrangements are available at [email protected] or by telephone, 0113 376 0318.

Feature photograph shows Mark Padmore.

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