Monday 26 April 2021

Spring song continues at Leeds Lieder with Fleur Barron, Gerald Finley, Benson Wilson, Sarah Connolly and many more

Leeds Lieder - Ella O'Neill, Benson Wilson (Image from live stream)
Leeds Lieder - Ella O'Neill, Benson Wilson (Image from live stream)

Fleur Barron, Ashok Klouda, Joseph Middleton, Michael Mofidian, Jâms Coleman, Gerald Finley, Julius Drake, Benson Wilson, Ella O'Neill, Julia Mariko Smith, Christopher Pulleyn, and Dame Sarah Connolly; Leeds Lieder at Leeds Town Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 April 2021
A terrific weekend of song in Leeds mixing mature artists with talent young singers

Leeds Lieder, artistic director Joseph Middleton, continued it Spring season of song with a weekend of recitals (24 & 25 April 2021) from Leeds Town Hall featuring Fleur Barron, Ashok Klouda, Joseph Middleton, Michael Mofidian, Jâms Coleman, Gerald Finley, Julius Drake, Benson Wilson, Ella O'Neill, Julia Mariko Smith, Christopher Pulleyn, and Dame Sarah Connolly, with Michael Mofidian, Julia Mariko Smith, and Christopher Pulleyn Being Momentum Artists, in a series of wide-ranging programmes which took in Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, Chausson and Elgar's explorations of the sea, programmes inspired by a Hong Kong childhood and by Anzac Day along with much else besides.

The weekend began with mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, cellist Ashok Klouda and pianist Joseph Middleton in a programme entitled Dreams, Homeland and Childhood which Barron, who is Singaporean-British, had created inspired by her upbringing in Hong Kong. She and Middleton began with a sequence which interleaved Brahms' three Heimweh (Homesickness) songs with songs by two contemporary Chinese-American composer Bun-Ching Lam (born 1954) and Chen Yi (born 1954), and Charles Ives' sentimental but touching My Native Land. The result was some intriguing juxtapositions, with Bun-Ching Lam's folk-inspired unaccompanied Music when soft voices dies flowing directly in Brahms' evocative Wie traulich war das Flecken. Chen Yi's Bright Moonlight was more modernist with intriging influences in its delicate textures.

Barron has a lovely warm mezzo-soprano voice with a highly engaging manner, and her delivery to camera was spot on. For the second group she gave us a selection from Mussorgsky's The Nursery, and created a wonderful series of dramatic vignettes, easily slipping from naive child to chiding nanny. These were delightful character sketches, no song outstayed its welcome and each told a little story. We returned to the East with the next sequence which moved from a Chen Yi song inspired by Peking Opera, vividly performed by Barron, to a rather lovely Chinese folksong to a song by Indian American composer Kamal Sankaram (born 1978), The Far Shore which was a seductive mix of Eastern and Western influences, and finally another, highly characterful Chinese folksong.

Barron and Middleton were then joineed by cellist Ashok Klouda for two songs by Borodin for voice, cello and piano, She no longer loves me and Listen, dear friend, to my song. Both featured wonderfully soulful cello parts, with Klouda's expressive playing complementing Barron's singing. These songs were a wonderful discovery. Next came Brahms' Gestillte Sehnsucht, Op. 91 in the composer's version for voice, cello (rather than viola) and piano, again a lovely combination of instrument and voice. Here, and throughout the recital I was also struck by Barron's attention to the words and their meaning. The final item was Libby Larsen's Music when soft voices die for voice, cello and piano, full of lovely seductive harmonies. But then there was an extra song, a final Borodin one, the perky delight of a song about a fisher maid.

In the evening, the main recital was given by bass-baritone Gerald Finley and Julius Drake with a performance of Schubert's Die schöne Mullerin, preceded by Momentum artists bass-baritone Michael Mofidian and pianist Jâms Coleman in Brahms' Four Serious Songs.

With the Four Serious Songs, Brahms was returning to themes explored in his Deutsches Requiem but this time he was impelled by the fatal illness of his friend Clara Schumann. The four songs are serious indeed, and Mofidian and Coleman gave us a serious, intent performance. Mofidian's voice has a dark chestnut quality to it which impelled the music into deep territory and for all his relative youth there was something Old Testament Prophet about his performance. There were quiet reflective moments, alongside gusts of anxiety with the final song developing a lovely sense of ebb and flow, though perhaps overall I would have liked a flash or two more of temperament.

This was not that last we saw of Mofidian, as he returned to join Gerald Finley at the conclusion of Die schone Mullerin. I have to confess that initially I had my doubts about the idea of a bass-baritone rather past the first flush of youth singing this cycle. But there is no reason why not after all the story transcends boundaries, though it has to be admitted that the pitch at which Finley sang some of the songs made the brook's burble in the piano something more of a rumble.

And Finley identified so well with the protagonist that you completely forgot as he drew you into this narrative. Finley's lover was a rather serious minded, intense young man; his voice and demeanour added an extra layer of seriousness and removed some of the youthful impetuosity. But the way Finley could take some of the apparently simple, folk-ish songs and gradually develop them was striking, he wormed his way into your consciouness in the way projected the lover's dilemmas. By the end of the cycle, the vivid intensity of the love and then anger had dissipated into something more frozen, ultimately achieving a sort of transcendence. The identification of Finley with the lover (rather than as a narrator figure) was intensified as the penultimate song saw the part of stream taken by Mofidian, and it was Mofidian who movingly brought the cycle to a close singing the stream's lullaby to the young man, bleak and infinitely sad.

Sunday afternoon brought a recital from Kathleen Ferrier Award Winners, baritone Benson Wilson (who is New Zealand-born of Samoan heritage) and pianist Ella O'Neill, and again this a programme to which the singer brought a personal element. 25 April is Anzac Day, a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand, so Wilson's programme was called Maumahara (Remembrance) and had a selection of songs by Mahler, Butterworth and Kurt Weill which explored themes of war and remembrance, and ended with a pair of arrangements of Maori traditional songs by Robert Wiremu.

There were two songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, 'Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen' combined a strong piano with Wilson's firm, shapely line along with attention to the words, but there was transcendent moments to, whilst 'Revelge' had a great swagger to it, it was almost disturbing particularly with O'Neill's terrific piano accompaniment. Next came George Butterworth's Six Songs from A Shrophsire Lad. AE Houseman's texts refer in fact to the Boer War, but the poems themselves became popular during the First World War, when Butterworth made his classic settings. Wilson took a poetic yet strikingly robust view of the music, and there was plenty of swagger along with poetics and intimate moments, with some superb storytelling, notably in 'Is my team ploughing?'. 

Wilson and O'Neill followed these with three of Kurt Weill's Four Walt Whitman Songs. These date from 1942, and set Whitman's poems which refer to the American Civil War. The music is pure Kurt Weill of Street Scene (and there were quite a few moments when you can almost hear that piece), so that there is a remarkable discjunct between music and words. Wilson and O'Neill performed them with a will, really leaning into the melodies and relishing Whitman's words.

Finally a pair of pieces by Robert Wiremu arranging Maori traditional music. The first, Oriori! O Nohomaiterangi a moving lullaby for two sons born in the time of war and the second, Victory and Glory, Ake ake kia kahe e! which combines Maori war songs from the First and Second World Wars along with a more recent piece. The result was striking and stirring, but highly relevant too as it included a passage about how Maori men fighting in World War I were penalised for defaulting on their rents while they were away fighting, and yet finishing in a quite fearsome manner.

Leeds Lieder - Joseph Middleton, Dame Sarah Connolly, announcer Tom McKinney (Photo Leeds Lieder)
Leeds Lieder - Joseph Middleton, Dame Sarah Connolly, announcer Tom McKinney (Photo Leeds Lieder)

In the evening, the main recital was given by Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton with a programme whose centrepiece was two different treatments of the sea, Ernest Chausson's Poeme de l'amour et de la mer and Edward Elgar's Sea Pictures. But first, there was a short recital by Momentum Artists, English-Japanese soprano Julia Mariko Smith and pianist Christopher Pulleyn,

Mariko Smith and Pulleyn began with two of Richard Strauss Mädchenblumen, 'Poppy' and 'Ivy'. These are quite early Strauss (1886/8) and have elements of the Jugendtil about them, we can imagine the visual images of stylised flowers. But they are very word heavy, almost chatty, but Mariko Smith and Pulleyn gave us finely crafted, light porcelain performances. They followed these with another flower song, 'Zur Rosenzeit' from Grieg's Sechs Lieder, Op. 48, a lyrically elegiac piece which developed some fine drama. They finished with a pair of Debussy songs, again relatively early; 'De Soir' from Proses Lyriques (1892) and 'Musique' from the Vasnier Songbook (1883). 'De Soir' was again a very text based piece, with Mariko Smith giving a charactful performing, whilst 'Musique' was beautifully flowing, yet with due attention to the works.

Connolly and Middleton's opening group returned us to Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, first 'Rheinlegenchen' with a sly, drinking-song lilt to it, then an urgent account of 'Das irdische Leben'. Next came one of the coincidences that must bedevel festival directors, as 'Wo die schönen Trumpeten blasen' return for a second performance that day. Connolly and Middleton took a very different approach and were wonderfully poetic, with Connolly giving a remarkably interior performance yet also telling a brilliant story. Finally in this group, 'Urlicht' , which was quiet, intense and infinitely sad.

Next came Chausson's Poème de l'amour et de la mer, written between 1882 and 1892 and premiered in a version for voice and piano with the composer at the piano, though it is best known in Chausson's orchestral version. In two parts separated by a piano interlude, Chausson sets his friend Maurice Bouchoir's texts but Chausson makes his own selection of the texts interweaving the settings together with piano interludes so that the work has a very modern feel to it (far more so than Elgar's later Sea Pictures which sticks firmly to four separate songs). The piano writing is positively orchestral and throughout Middleton dazzled with his fingerwork and his conjuring of a rich tapestry of sounds. Connolly sang with a beautifully expressive flexibility of line and great sensuality, in fact the two performers seemed to revel in the work's highly emotional, perfumed seduction. The result was compelling and, at the end, tenderly sad, whilst all the while bringing out the debt that Chausson owed to Wagner without ever emulating him.

As a break between the Chausson and the Elgar were four British songs. First John Ireland's wonderfully evocative Earth's Call which, with its substantial piano part felt far more Continental than English particularly coming straight after the Chausson. Then Moeran's touching Twilight and finally in this group two songs by Ivor Gurney. Thou didst delight mine eyes was touching setting of Robert Bridges (in self-consciously old-fashioned mode), and the powerful John Masefield setting, By a Bierside

I have always rather preferred Elgar's Sea Pictures (written in 1894) in their more intimate piano incarnation and rather than moving them further towards the salon, the piano seems to release the singer to explore the work's more intimate poetic side. With out the waves of an orchestra to crest, Connolly allowed her voice to explore the music's quiet intensity. Connolly and Middleton sang four of the songs (omitting 'The Swimmer'). 'Sea Slumber Song' was completley magical, whilst 'In haven' had a wonderful sense of joy. 'Where coral's lie' was very engaging, with a great sense of the exotic in the piano and a seductive line from Connolly. The poetic 'Sabbath morning at sea' was perhaps the closest to Elgar in his nobilmente mood with its self-conciously big finish.

But there was more, Julia Mariko Smith returned to the platform and the evening concluded with Connolly and Mariko Smith singing a duet, Faure's lovely Pleurs d'Or.


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