Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Spence / Middleton @ Clothworkers’ Centenary Concert Hall, University of Leeds

7 March 2020

This recital was both the final concert in the Leeds Lieder 2019-20 season, and a taster for the forthcoming 2020 Festival, which takes place over four days from Thursday April 16th-Sunday April 19th. This will be the 10th year of the Festival, and the first to be hosted by the University of Leeds. The programme promises to be unmissable for anyone who loves the art of song, and if last night’s recital was any indication of the standard we can expect, then every single one of the events should be sold out.

Joseph Middleton, the Festival’s director and guiding light, is so young that he had never heard a concert performance of the evening’s central work, Janáček’s Diary of one who Disappeared, until he learnt it for this evening – yet he played it with such virtuosity and panache that you would imagine he had grown up with it. The piano part is as demanding and challenging as that for the voice, and his collaboration with Nicky Spence’s at once heroic and tender characterization of the besotted youth, was gripping from first note to last.

Nicky is fast becoming one of our most sought-after tenors; with every phrase, you can hear a future Florestan and Grimes, yet the voice is capable of Mozartian finesse and elegance when required. His stage presence is exceptionally winning – this is someone who just loves to perform, and he draws you in to the music with his unforced enthusiasm. Janáček’s music is ideal for this voice, and the performance made a convincing case for the work’s greatness.

The composer’s infatuation with Kamila Stösslová inspired the elevated, ardent nature of the music – “That’s why there is so much emotional fire in the work. So much fire that… we’d be turned into ashes.” (Janáček, Letters) That no-holds-barred passion was finely brought out by both singer and pianist here, and beautifully counterpointed by Amy Payne’s sultry, exquisitely sung Zofka.

There was plenty of passion on display in the rest of the programme, mixed with wit and flair. Britten’s settings of the folk songs ‘Ca the yowes’ and ‘O can ye sew cushions’ reminded us once more of the composer’s greatness with these deceptively simple pieces, when sung and played with such absolute sincerity. ‘Ye banks and braes’ as arranged by Claire Liddell, was very moving, as was ‘Shy Geordie’ (Jim Reid) a little known song to Helen B. Cruickshank’s words about a baby and the young man who wishes it was his – an unusual take on the situation, and performed with gentle sweetness.

Buxton Orr’s Songs of a Childhood brought the programme to a close. These chippy little pieces by the composer of music for Hammer Horror films as well as the score for Suddenly Last Summer, may not be to everyone’s taste, but they certainly made a strong contrast to the main work of the evening, and were sung and played with great humour and commitment by this outstanding partnership.

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More on Nicky Spence
Ryedale Festival review – The King’s Singers / Fretwork & Nicky Spence / Christopher Glynn celebrate Byrd and others
Give to me the life I love review – old and new music combine as part of the Ryedale Festival
Spence / Middleton @ Clothworkers’ Centenary Concert Hall, University of Leeds
The Marriage / La Cambiale di Matrimonio @ Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London