Saturday 20 April 2024

A day at Leeds Lieder Festival: Fauré, Boulanger, Mahler and more

Gabriel Fauré by John Singer Sargent, 1889
Gabriel Fauré by John Singer Sargent, 1889

Lecture recital: Gabriel Fauré and his mélodies; Graham Johnson, Sarah Fox, Florian Störtz; Leeds Lieder Festival at The Venue, Leeds Conservatoire
Gabriel Fauré, Lili Boulanger, Mahler, Roger Quilter, Muriel Herbert; James Gilchrist, Anna Tilbrook; Leeds Lieder Festival at The Venue, Leeds Conservatoire
Reviewed 18 April 2024

A day of French song with a focus on Fauré, with Graham Johnson making us love the composer's late period, and James Gilchrist in fine form, from elegant Fauré to perfumed Boulanger, Mahler in comic mode and Roger Quilter with his heart on his sleeve

Thursday 18 April was A Day of French Song at Leeds Lieder Festival. In the morning the festival's Young Artists had a public masterclass with soprano Dame Felicity Lott concentrating on French repertoire, then at lunchtime pianist Graham Johnson was joined by soprano Sarah Fox and baritone Florian Störtz for a lecture recital on Gabriel Fauré and his mélodies, and Johnson went on join the Young Artists for a further masterclass in the afternoon. The evening recital was given by tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Anna Tilbrook with songs by Fauré and Lili Boulanger alongside those of Mahler, Roger Quilter and Muriel Herbert. Though it was perhaps unfortunate that Johnson and Gilchrist's choice of Fauré songs overlapped rather. Impressively, the whole day was live-streamed and is available to view on the festival's YouTube channel.

For the lunchtime lecture recital in The Venue, Leeds Conservatoire's handsome recital hall, Graham Johnson took an historical approach to Fauré and his mélodies (109 of them, written between 1861 and 1921), beginning with his first surviving song and working through to his last song cycle, dividing the composer's output into periods each illustrated with songs from Sarah Fox and Florian Störtz. But Johnson also explained why the songs were like they are, what makes Fauré so distinctive. Johnson deftly interwove speech and song, moving from piano to lectern and back, and his delivery was impressively succinct yet engaging and informative, with a nice ear for a well-turned, memorable phrase. By the end we felt we understood Fauré's song output a lot more and wanted to explore further, particularly the late period about which Johnson was passionate.

We began with his first surviving song, Le Papillon et la fleur in a delightfully mock-serious performance from Sarah Fox. Fauré was only 16 when he wrote it, a student at the École Niedermeyer where it came to the attention of a young teacher, Camille Saint-Saens (just ten years older than his pupil) and the two would remain friends. This followed by Florian Störtz in a serious and subtle account of Mai, a surprisingly complex work for a young man.

Fauré was the only major French composer of the period not to have trained at the Paris Conservatoire. Johnson explained that his training at the École Niedermeyer was designed for church musicians, including teaching church modes to equip organists to improvise. This training gave Fauré his unique approach to harmony. From his second period we heard, Nell with Fox giving us a stylishly soaring melody over a shifting web of harmonies, then Störtz was richly melancholy in the dark Automne.

 Fauré's discovery of Verlaine came next with three songs performed by Sarah Fox. A stylish and elegant account of Mandoline from Cinq Mélodies "de Venise", the deceptively calm beauty and shifting harmonies of En sourdine and an urgent account of Puisque l'aube grandit from La Bonne Chanson. This latter was written for soprano Emma Bardac, whom Fauré was in love with.

Next came the songs written in the 20th century, and this period clearly excited Johnson most. And he pointed out that as the composer's tinnitus worsened, so he wrote his piano accompaniments in a narrower compass, refining his art down to something more concentrated.

We heard Störtz in a concentrated, intense and bleak account of Dans la forêt de septembre and the subtle and not immediately gratifying Le Don silencieux. These are songs about the words and need work from us to appreciate them. Fox was quietly concentrated in the spare Je me poserai sur ton coeur, a wonderfully subtle song, full of rich detail, and the gentle but harmonically adventurous Dans la Nymphée, both from Le Jardin clos. From his penultimate cycle of 1919, Mirages we heard Störtz in Jardin nocturne, bringing gentle thoughtfulness to it along with giving weight to the words. From the final cycle of 1921, L’Horizon chimérique we heard Störtz in an urgent account of La mer est infinie.

But that wasn't quite the end as Johnson and Fox took us back to 1906 for a wonderful account of the rather miraculous Paradis from La Chanson d'Eve.

Back at The Venue in the evening. James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook began their recital with three of Roger Quilter's settings of Shakespeare. Gilchrist remains a fine champion of Quilter's songs, clearly enjoying the heart on sleeve nature of the composer's talent. Blow, blow thou winter wind was a big romantic piece, given with remarkable control and subtlety of colour. Fear no more the heat o' the sun was very interior and the group ended with a carefree yet pointed account of Under the Greenwood Tree.

Anna Tilbrook, James Gilchrist - Leeds Lieder Festival 2024 at The Venue, Leeds Conservatoire (Photo from Livestream)
Anna Tilbrook, James Gilchrist - Leeds Lieder Festival 2024 at The Venue, Leeds Conservatoire (Photo from Livestream)

Next came Fauré songs. The recital's theme, The Earth has Music, was loosely the natural world and the Fauré songs chimed with this. Green was by turns urgent and silkily seductive, words tumbling over each other at times, and Gilchrist really caressed the words in an intimate account of Les roses d'Isphahan full of colours. Automne featured a melancholy vocal line unfolding over restless piano, whilst Aurore brought out Gilchrist's story-telling abilities. These were to the fore in a delightful account of Le Papillon et la fleur with Gilchrist creating a real mini-drama, and not a little camp too.

Next a selection of songs from Lili Boulanger's Clairières dans le cie; written in 1914 when the composer was just 21 and setting the Symbolist poet, Francis Jammes (1868-1938). These are highly perfumed songs, intimate and with a sense of emotion remembered in quietness. This is Fauré in excelsis with hints of Debussy, yet a developing voice that was Boulanger's own. The heady atmosphere began with Elle était descendue followed by the concentrated intent of Si tout ceci with its Wagnerian references in the piano. Nous nous aimerons was all luminous harmony and the group ended with the luscious, seductive textures of Vous m’avez regardé.

The second half began with a group of songs by Mahler, in lighter mood than usual, all taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Gilchrist made Ablösung im Sommer a delightful mini-drama, full of narrative charm. This story-telling continued with Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt which became a litany of delightful descriptions of different fish, with Gilchrist gleefully combining musical and visual story-telling. Rheinlegendchen was another charming story, with a lovely sway to the accompaniment, and we ended this group with Lob des hohen Verstandes where Gilchrist had great fun narrating and enacting the story.

We then returned to 20th century England with Muriel Herbert, a composer who trained with Stanford during World War I but whose output decline on marriage. Renouncement was richly romantic and impassion, whilst The Lake of Innisfree was lyrical and flowing. To Daffodils was beautifully constructed with hints of classy salon music, something that applies to Roger Quilter too (the two knew each other, she was rather keen on him but Quilter, discreetly homosexual, did not reciprocate).

We ended with four more Quilter songs. Now sleeps the crimson petal where Gilchrist made the performance all about colouring the text, the appealing ardent (and very heart on sleeve) To daisies, the big hearted A last year's rose and an insouciant account of O mistress mine. There was one encore, Quilter's Go lovely rose, one of the first songs James Gilchrist learned as a young tenor (studying, it turns out, with tenor Ian Partridge's mother).

This was a lovely recital with Gilchrist in engaging form, wonderfully partnered by Anna Tilbrook whose playing was always stylish and supportive. Gilchrist has reached the stage in his career where a deepening of artistry is balanced by a need to sometimes manage the voice. Yes, we had some tricky notes, but he brought such a sense of engagement with the material, with an ability to put over a story, colour the words and engage the meaning.

All the events are available on the festival's YouTube channel:

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