Mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and pianist Joseph Middleton gave a superb recital of English song as part of this year’s virtual Leeds Lieder series. Whately’s parents, actors Kevin Whately and Madelaine Newton, made it a family affair, reading poems to illuminate the themes of the various song groups. The recital, with the title “The Other Eden”, turned out to be a brilliant masterclass in the art of singing – and reading – in English.

Kitty Whately
© Tom Arber

Whately, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist from 2013-15, demonstrated a mature command of musical phrase and diction, as well as insight into of the art of English text delivery. Hers is a lyric mezzo, with soprano-like ease in her upper range. The musical line was legato, with subtle marking of consonants and connection of vowels. She has a welcoming presence on the platform. Whately and Middleton were a communicative and expert duo, comparing favorably to such famous English song teams of recent memory: Janet Baker with Gerald Moore, Felicity Lott with Graham Johnson.

The 90-minute program portrayed aspects of England's character and landscape: patriotism and nostalgia; forests and gardens; fields and meadows; coasts and seas; and words by Britain’s Bard, William Shakespeare. Complete texts of poems and songs were provided in the downloadable program book. The songs were mostly by well-known composers, but some of the most interesting works were off the beaten track.

Madelaine Newton and Kevin Whately
© Tom Arber

Rebecca Clarke’s setting of W.B. Yeats’ The Salley Gardens was, unlike the saccharine folksong often used for the text, more acerbic, focused on the bittersweet realities of love. Whately’s rapturous performance was a highlight of the concert, as was her electrifying reading of Herbert Howells’ King David, in which the grieving Hebrew king is comforted by the song of a nightingale in his garden. Thomas Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush followed up the avian theme. Jackie Kaye’s (b.1961) The World of Trees is a melancholy description of a group of trees standing together, each aware of the other, but each with its own stories, and the refrain, “Sycamore, Mountain Ash, Beech, Birch, Oak”. Newton’s reading at first seemed casual, but as the poem progressed I felt as if she was telling me a story, making the trees real living and sentient beings.

Whately’s unaccompanied singing of the folksong Ma Bonny Lad was heartbreaking in its sadness, and a highlight of the “Coasts and Seas” segment. Kevin Whately followed the folksong with the anonymous poem The Great Silkie o’ Sule Skerry, recited from memory in convincing (at least to this American listener) Scottish dialect. Another Clarke setting, The Seal Man (with words by John Masefield), was a creepy gothic horror story set to dramatic music. Whately made it into a mini-opera.

Joseph Middleton and Kitty Whately
© Tom Arber

The Shakespeare set, with readings from As You Like it, Hamlet, and Macbeth, and songs for Ophelia by Elizabeth Maconchy, Desdemona by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and a dramatic cantata for Lady Macbeth by Joseph Horovitz. It was, unfortunately, not less successful, despite Whately and Middleton’s musically excellent performance. The vocal lines never took wing; there were long segments of recitative without much vocal variety. Fewer words, more music might have solved the problem.

Leeds Lieder young artist Laurence Kilsby, tenor, with pianist Ian Tindale, opened the concert with a group of six Lieder (Schubert, Schoenberg, Wolf). Kilsby has an attractive lyric tenor, an unaffected stage presence, and clear potential, although he seemed pushed to his current limit with his three chosen Wolf Mörike-Lieder.

This performance was reviewed from the Leeds Lieder video stream