Flowers and their meanings were crucial for Leeds Lieder’s Day of Song – in fact the official title was A Garland of Song. Prominent in most people’s minds on the occasion was the memory of the late and much-missed Jane Anthony, the great inspiration and driver behind Leeds Lieder as a whole, one of the only major festivals in Britain which specializes in song and poetry. The garland was for her. The new Director, Joseph Middleton, wrote a fitting tribute in the programme, and told us how he was looking forward to continuing and expanding her work, with recitals throughout the year, to be held at Leeds College of Music, the Howard Assembly Rooms at Opera North and the University of Leeds – three terrific recital halls in one city.

Carolyn Sampson © Ingpen & Williams
Carolyn Sampson
© Ingpen & Williams

Middleton accompanied Caroline Sampson in Fleurs, the final event of the Day. She explained to us that the idea for it had been Middleton’s: “We spent some time working through all the flower songs we knew, then chose what we wanted and divided them into four groups, two before and after the interval”. She began, in a section headed by the “What’s in a name?” quote from Romeo and Juliet, with Purcell’s “Sweeter than roses”, an aria sung by Pandora in Richard Norton’s 1695 tragedy Pausanias. She was stunning.

The obvious problem with being stunning from the beginning means the performer runs the risk of moving towards anticlimaxes. Sampson is well-known for her excellent, just about faultless treatment of Baroque pieces, and there was nothing else in the same bracket for this programme. There were no downturns. She dealt with Schumann’s Meine Rose and his Röselein with obvious delight, and brought Quilter’s brief Damask Roses brilliantly to life. One of her main strengths, well known on concert and opera stages across the globe, is her ability to absolutely live the part, and this she did yet again. It is difficult to think of performance equivalents – to choose a baritone from Vienna, possibly Florian Boesch, in the past a visitor to Leeds Lieder. Her only faux-pas was to sing a a couple of dozen bars of Britten’s The Nightingale and the Rose (words by Pushkin) in Russian before realizing that we had the English translation in front of us, for which she apologized.

Russian is a language which particularly suits her style, but then French does as well: Gounod’s Les temps des roses, which is full of enthusiastic exclamations (“Aimons! Voici le temps des roses!” / “Let us love! Rose-time is come!”) was given all the right treatments, surpassed only by what followed, Fauré’s Les roses d’Ispahan, which refers to the fragrance of the “jasmines of Mosul” and which was exquisitely moving, not just because of the more recent connotations for the name of that city.

After the interval, in a section headed Strauss’ Flowermaidens, she delivered some dynamic interpretations, for example of Mohnblumen (Poppies) and overcame any possible difficulties with Wasserrose (Water-lily) with panache. Schubert’s exultant interpretation of Die Blumensprache (The Language of Flowers) was accurately conveyed under the heading When blooms speak and full justice was done to Schumann’s Schneeglöckchen (Snowdrop), but the peak for me was reached in the final section (Un bouquet français) when she offered us two quite different versions of Verlaine’s Offrande (An Offering), the first by Hahn, and the second (Green) by Debussy. Middleton was a perfect partner, his lissom playing constantly matching Sampson’s vocal agility.

In April next year, baritone Roderick Williams will be artistic director of the Leeds Lieder+ International Festival of Song, invited a year ago, by Jane Anthony.