Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Leeds Lieder review – Schubert on wings of song at the Leeds Conservatoire

14 April 2024

Leeds Lieder 2024 opens with a stunning soprano and celebrates 20 years with an evening of friendship in song.

Leeds Lieder Festival

Joseph Middleton & Nikola Hillebrand (Photo: Brendan Ashmore)

One of the highlights of the 2022 Leeds Lieder Festival was the recital by the German soprano Nikola Hillebrand, accompanied by Joseph Middleton, so it was no surprise that the 2024 opening lunchtime concert featured this partnership, so perfectly matched and so ideal an example of what Lieder is all about. ‘Lachen und Weinen’ similarly pairs the Schubertian experience of the dual natures of sadness and joy, and it was sung and played with exuberant skill, the final answer ‘Muss ich dich fragen, O Herz’ given with ironic emphasis. ‘Nachtviolen’ provided an object lesson in tranquil, limpid playing and delicate, intimate singing, and ‘Gretchen’s Bitte’ gave a glimpse of Hillebrand’s dramatic aptitude.

Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock) was Schubert’s penultimate work, composed just weeks before his death, and it’s heart-rending to think that someone so close to the end could set words like ‘Der Frühling will kommen, Der Frühling,meiner Freud’ (Springtime is coming, Springtime my joy) with a sense of such abandoned bliss. Leading up to that wonderful ‘turn’ in the music, Hillebrand sang the melancholy shepherd’s lines with faultless legato, and Oliver Casanovas Nuevo’s clarinet wove around her with superb articulation and exquisite phrasing. Joseph Middleton supported them both with elegance.

“…it was sung and played with exuberant skill…”

That evening, the 20th Anniversary Gala took the form of a Schubertiade, beginning with the rare delight of two of the composer’s 100 or more part-songs, sung with stylish enthusiasm by the Leeds Lieder young singers. It’s a feature of this festival that it looks to the future, showcasing not only established artists but those on the way to recognition, and it’s safe to say that the future of Lieder is assured with these youthful singers and pianists. Names to look out for include Èlia Farreras-Cabero, Lucas Huber Sierra and Deirunas Jasiulionis.

In true Schubertiade style, the evening included not only songs but the Fantasie in F minor for piano (four hands) played by Roger Vignoles and Joseph Middleton, their aura of just enjoying the piece surrounded by friends belying their technical proficiency and interpretative skill. Nikola Hillebrand enchanted again with ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’, taken by Middleton at a positively galloping pace, as was a fabulously animated version of ‘Der Musensohn’. One of Elly Ameling’s favourite songs, ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ was given a lustrously sung and finely played performance, with Middleton’s piano evoking the sparkling waves and Hillebrand’s voice persuasively suggesting the atmosphere of quiet contemplation. ‘Fischerweise’ was a brilliantly characterized depiction of a doomed flirtation, Hillebrand’s wry twists and turns around the two speakers complemented by Middleton’s witty playing.

Leeds Lieder Festival

Roger Vignoles & Roderick Williams (Photo: Brendan Ashmore)

It’s always a pleasure to experience Roderick Williams’ mellow tone and his affable yet patrician stage presence; his singing of ‘Der Wanderer’, finely accompanied by Vignoles, may not have had the rage given to it by some baritones, but succeeded by its subtle pleading and nuanced phrasing. ‘Nachtstück’ allowed him to display his seamless legato, and ‘Im Frühling’ provided a subtle link to ‘Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’ with its combination of hope and melancholy.

The concerts were rapturously received by a large and enthusiastic audience; if you’d like to join them, there are many more events over the next week, including recitals by Carolyn Sampson (Friday 19th) and Benjamin Appl (Sunday 21st).

• Both concerts can be streamed: Schubertiade Lunchtime Opening Recital and Schubertiade 20th Anniversary Gala Recital.

• Further details of all upcoming Leeds Lieder 2024 events can be found here.

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