Opera + Classical Music Reviews

James Gilchrist & Joseph Middleton rediscover lieder at Leeds Conservatoire

22 October 2022

Leeds Lieder leads Lied in Leeds.

James Gilchrist

James Gilchrist

Leeds Lieder continues its series of weekend festivals, with something for all lovers of song; entitled ‘Rediscovering Lieder’ the packed programme features recitals from some of today’s leading singers as well as informal sessions. This recital was an unashamedly Romantic evening of Lieder, so it was a pity that the audience was fairly small in contrast to that for the previous night’s performance, which attracted three times the number. Perhaps a no holds barred recital of some of the most emotional songs in the repertoire was too much to take for some people, but although our numbers were small, we did make up for it with our enthusiastic response.

That response was well deserved for playing and singing of the highest quality. This seems to be a golden age for accompanists, and Joseph Middleton is right up there with the best. Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte sets challenges for both singer and pianist, all met with style and grace, especially those tricky little connective phrases which make this cycle so distinctive. James Gilchrist is the ideal singer for this music, given his forthright, passionate style and his instinctive feeling for the language; in the first song, ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz ich spähend’ the word ‘Seufzer’ (sighs) was given the perfect onomatopoeic emphasis, and the fifth, ‘Es kehret der Maien’ conveyed all the heady excitement of Springtime.

“This recital was an unashamedly Romantic evening of Lieder…”

Joseph Middleton

Joseph Middleton

Schumann’s Liederkreis is always a test of both the singer’s ability to convey heightened emotion without straying into mawkishness, and the pianist’s ability to give the composer’s cadences their due weight. This was a performance of true partnership, with the dramatic moments startlingly powerful and the tender ones beautifully phrased; ‘Mit Myrten und Rosen’ was the highlight it ought to be, those crucial lines ‘Einst kommt dies Buch in deine Hand, Du süsses Lieb’ im fernen Land’ conveying exactly the right intimacy and longing.

Schumann’s setting of three Heine poems as ‘Tragödie I, II, III’ present just about the most sad songs in the Lied repertoire, with their tale of ill-fated lovers who had no happiness and no luck. They were finely sung and played, and the requirement for a soprano in the final song allowed us to be introduced to the very sweet voice and serene stage presence of Chloe Rigby, a final year student at the Conservatoire.

Fauré’s La bonne chanson gives an ecstatically optimistic view of love, in complete contrast to the Beethoven and Schumann works. Verlaine’s poems are full of poetic hyperbole and the challenge in performing their settings is to convey their heady joy without falling into the trap of too much lushness; Gilchrist and Middleton succeed in this magnificently, most tellingly in ‘La lune blanche’ where the phrase ‘C’est l’heure exquise’ was given the perfect intonation.

Quilter’s setting of ‘Go Lovely Rose’ was an apt encore, beautifully sung and played.

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