Thursday 18 April 2024

Engaging the audience: James Newby and Joseph Middleton in a folk-inspired programme at a cool Leeds café/bar

Leeds Lieder 2024 - Joseph Middleton, James Newby - Through the Noise at Hyde Park Book Club
Leeds Lieder 2024 - Joseph Middleton, James Newby - Through the Noise at Hyde Park Book Club

Matyas Seiber, John Jacob Niles, Thomas Traill, Joseph Suder, Percy Grainger, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Ravel: Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques, Mahler: Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen; James Newby, Joseph Middleton; Leeds Lieder & Through the Noise at Hyde Park Book Club
17 April 2024

A new collaboration sees Leeds Lieder at a cool café/bar with an engaging and beautifully sung programme of songs inspired by folk-music

A former fuel storage tank is not the usual venue for a song recital, but Hyde Park Book Club is no usual venue and last night's recital there (17 April 2024) by baritone James Newby and pianist Joseph Middleton was a collaboration between Leeds Lieder (of which Middleton is the artistic director) and Through the Noise, the organisation that promotes its concerts, noisenights, via a distinctive crowdfunding model. The recital was all of folk-inspired music, from Matyas Seiber, John Jacob Niles, Thomas Traill, Joseph Suder, Percy Grainger, Vaughan Williams and Britten, plus Ravel's Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques and Mahler's Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen.

The room was small, and needed discreet amplification to provide the right sort of acoustic, but this was sensitively and naturally done. There was a magnificent grand piano, lent for the occasion and not what you usually expect to find in the basement of a café/bar! Hyde Park Book Club is a café, bar and venue based in a former petrol station, hence the former fuel storage tank. A friendly and casual upstairs bar provided refreshment and sustenance before the event and somewhere to chat to the performers afterwards.

Leeds Lieder 2024 - James Newby - Through the Noise at Hyde Park Book Club
Leeds Lieder 2024 - James Newby - Through the Noise at Hyde Park Book Club
(Photo: Tom Arber)

The event was sold out, so there was a packed, standing audience. Sight-lines were at a premium but I am assured that even from the back the sound was good and throughout the evening James Newby's diction was superb, we heard every word and if you are doing a programme inspired by folk-music then you need that. Newby built on the casual atmosphere, chatting to the audience in a way that was informative, yet entertainingly self-deprecating; I have never heard the word 'wanky' used as an adjective (to describe his explanation of the raison d'etre of the programme) on the concert platform before!

We began with the traditional, Scarborough Fair, Newby beginning unaccompanied and then the piano joining in. Hauntingly done, yet we heard far more verses than is often the case, giving a real story to the piece. Then came Matyas Seiber's Rossignol, a vivid piece that Newby really identified with. Throughout the set, he really used the whole platform space and gave us some really engaging storytelling, allied to fine singing indeed.

Ravel's Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques are folk-song arrangements originally done for a lecture. These are short, yet vivid pieces with both Newby and Middleton bringing out the character of each. 'Le Réveil de la Mariée' was urgent, with Newby's flashing eyes conveying much, 'Là-bas, vers l’église' was concentrated and intent, 'Quel galant m’est comparable?' moved from a strong, expansive gesture to being rather knowing, 'Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques' was haunting and we ended with the vividly engaging, 'Tout gai!'

Leeds Lieder 2024 - the author captured by Tom Arber at Hyde Park Book Club
Leeds Lieder 2024 - the author captured by Tom Arber
at Hyde Park Book Club

John Jacob Niles' version American traditional song Black is the colour of my true love’s hair is a piece I rather associate with Cathy Berberian, here Newby was strongly felt and very direct. Then we moved to Scotland for Thomas Traill's My Luve’s in Germanie and here Newby really put over the story well. German composer Joseph Suder (1892-1980) is not a well-known name and it was lovely to encounter his version of a Urlicht, more usually associated with Mahler. The setting belied its composer's dates and had a very late 19th-century, late-Romantic feel to it. Beautifully constructed with plenty of drama in the piano, and finely sung too.

Next came Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with both artists giving the songs great care and attention. Throughout the cycle, Newby sang with a beautifully well-supported line, projecting word and colour, and always partnered imaginatively by Middleton. The audience might have been standing crammed in an old fuel tank but we were definitely transported. 'Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht' was intent and full of meaning, with strongly vivid moments. 'Ging heut Morgen übers Feld'  was casual yet strongly project, with both performers adept at turning a phrase from pleasure to pain. 'Ich hab’ein glühend Messer' was astonishingly vivid and angry, with Newby spitting the words and bringing an adventurous freedom to the top of his voice. Finally, 'Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz' was deeply felt, with a lovely, well-upholstered line that Newby floated magically when the poet talks about the Linden tree. Even close to the audience, it was impressive how Newby took ownership of the performance space and was not frightened of using his body and his voice. Throughout the cycle, he brought an imaginative approach to tone colour, particularly in his variety of tone in the upper register.
Percy Grainger's version of the Willow song came next, Willow Willow, performed with lovely tone colour and urgent words, really projecting the meaning. A wonderfully intent performance of Vaughan Williams' arrangement of The Turtle Dove proved to be near ideal. Then came two Britten arrangements, Il est quelqu’un sur terre and O Waly, Waly, both of which Newby invested a lot in the performance, making the song work. Then as an encore we got Sting's Fields of Gold, a surprising but apposite choice which highlighted the folk elements in the piece, though in his introduction Newby said that he associated the song more with American singer, Eva Cassidy.

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