Review: Leeds Lieder Festival. Leeds Town Hall

Sunday evening saw the culmination of 4 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 – cleverly unpacking gender fluidity and the question of identity – was one of a number of five-star moments across the weekend, from a festival team that since 2004, have crafted a cornerstone of cultural splendour – not just for the North – but internationally. Following the success of the necessary 2020 move to live-stream, the weekend’s events could again be accessed remotely, but the chance to soak-up the atmosphere in person at Leeds Town Hall was very special.

  • Photo – Justin Slee

In 2014, the pianist Joseph Middleton became the Festival Director and in 2017 – with an ever-increasing demand from audiences to be able to access ‘art song’ outside the capital, Leeds Lieder moved from a biennial to annual event.

However, the Lieder team are active throughout the year, delivering the most amazing education and community engagement projects: “We promote access to classical music for people who would not otherwise have the opportunity or who may be on the fringes of society, and we strive to educate and encourage young people to engage with music in and outside of school.”

The Leeds-born Soprano Jane Anthony – who first brought together partners including Leeds College of Music – to stage the inaugural 2004 festival, would be incredibly proud of the way in which her passion created an organisation that is now a key driver of regional community and social development.

So…to the festival weekend…Thursday opened with ‘The View From the Villa’, which brilliantly communicated what must have been quite a challenging time for the Wagner and Wesendonck households, as they gazed out over Lake Zurich in the 1850’s. 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 talk about the programming for the Opening Gala Recital.

  • Photo – Justin Slee

‘A Spiritual Solstice’ with Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano) and Christian Blackshaw on piano, included works from Schumann, Strauss, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Lehmann, Grainger and Quilter. An impeccably-behaved and socially-distanced audience in Victoria Hall, were clearly overjoyed to again be able to experience what was an incredibly moving live performance.

On Friday, Dame Felicity Lott delivered a second Festival Masterclass, Before soprano Natalya Romaniw again with Iain Burnside at the piano, took to the stage for a sumptuous lunchtime recital – serving up Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg and Rachmaninov.

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 Benjamin Britten specialist – really added immense value to the atmosphere and meaning of the recital itself.

Tenor Mark Padmore was quite superb, both in his technical excellence and also his explanations of each piece. Accompanied by countertenor Iestyn Davies and baritone Peter Brathwaite, in addition to the piano of Joseph Middleton and the harp of Olivia Jageurs and with some very 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.

  • Photo – Tom Arber

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 – their offering was exemplary. Weaving local poetry throughout their programme provided a reminder that we were all firmly planted in Yorkshire. Inspired!

On Saturday another packed programme of the very highest quality was on offer. The day kicked-off with the Young Artists ‘Coffee Concert’, followed by Ema Nikolovska’s lunchtime recital. Again with the fantastic Middleton at the piano. This Canadian mezzo-soprano created a magical tapestry of global music, taking us from the Balkans to Robert Burns Scotland, (via some very confident vegetables).

Saturday’s evening recital of: ‘If Fiordiligi and Dorabella had been Lieder singers’, was pitched against an online Pop-up Poetry event. I tuned in from my sofa – and both were excellent!

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 is 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 over the weekend. Special mention should go to Joseph Middleton for his leadership – as well as the team at Leeds Town Hall, who provided a Covid-safe, worry-free venue for concert goers.

Leeds Lieder Festival 2021. 5 Stars.

Northern Soul – June 2021

Colin Petch

June 2021

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