On Sunday afternoon the most recent recipient of the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier Award, Kitty Whately, was welcomed to the Clothworkers’ Hall by Leeds Lieder, an organisation founded in the hope of introducing art song to a new audience. Accompanied by pianist Christopher Glynn, the up-and-coming mezzo soprano performed a varied programme featuring German, French and English songs, delighting the Leeds audience with her beautiful voice and innate understanding of the repertoire.

Kitty Whately © Robert Piwko
Kitty Whately
© Robert Piwko

Whately’s programme began with Schumann’s upbeat ‘Die Kartenlegerin’ (‘The Fortune-teller’), the spirited monologue of a mischievous young girl who waits for her mother to fall asleep before swapping her sewing for fortune cards. Whately is a still performer, but she breathes life into all her characters with her bright vocal tone, exquisite diction and wonderful facial expressions. As she moved on to the composer’s more reflective Frauenliebe und -leben cycle, which she has admired for more than a decade but has never before had the opportunity to perform, she demonstrated her ability to inhabit a very different character. With her pretty voice full of sorrow, she sang of unrequited love and sought the emotional core of these well-known settings of Adelbert von Chamisso’s poems. ‘Süßer Freund, du blickest’ (‘Sweetest friend, you gaze at me’) was a particular highlight.

Whately completed the first half of her programme with Mignon Lieder, four songs by Hugo Wolf. Wolf based this enigmatic cycle on a series of poems by Goethe which originally appeared in the novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Each piece is haunting and dramatic, and the intensity of Whately’s voice built throughout, culminating in extremely robust renditions of Mignon III, ‘So lasst mich scheinen’ (‘Thus let me seem till thus I become’) and ‘Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen bluhn?’ (‘Do you know where the lemon trees blossom?’). When interpreting Wolf, her voice seemed transformed: darker in tone, much richer, and many times more powerful. Applause was not immediate, and as her final note hung in the air it seemed as though the incredible emotion she had captured had left us all a little stunned.

She began the second half of her programme with more Goethe: this time settings by Schubert of ‘Gretchen am Spinnarde’ (‘Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel’) and ‘Gretchens Bitte’ (‘Gretchen’s Plea’). Again, Whately captured the dark, contemplative atmosphere of unrequited love beautifully, her voice sorrowful and pretty as it interweaved with the repetitive piano refrains that so accurately represent the motions of the lonely girl’s spinning wheel.

Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis followed. The three songs (‘La Flûte de Pan’, ‘La Chevelure’ and ‘Le Tombeau des Naïades’) were inspired by the ‘Bucolics in Pamphylia’ cycle of Pierre Louÿs’ famous collection of poetry, and each one is comprised of ethereal recollections of early memories. Whately’s interpretations were stunning, and she captured the mood of the songs perfectly, her gorgeous voice soaring over Glynn’s wistful, melancholic playing. ‘La Flûte de Pan’ was particularly evocative, with the story of long lost love communicated through rich, expressive vocals and a heady, atmospheric piano accompaniment.

After the Debussy Chansons came Joseph Horovitz’s modern and unusual musical settings of three scenes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which Whately performed with zeal, before finishing her programme with two modern songs: John Ireland’s beautiful setting of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Her Song’ and Aaron Copland’s haunting ‘The Chariot’ from his song-cycle inspired by the works of Emily Dickinson. Both works were excellent vehicles for Whately to showcase the strength and purity of her voice as well as her considerable talent for interpretation, and in choosing to end on two heartbreaking songs written in the English language, she gave her audience the opportunity to bask in the beauty and power of her sound without needing to refer to their programme notes and lyric translations. This was a truly exquisite recital which I feel extremely fortunate to have heard, and I look forward with excitement to following Kitty Whately’s rising star.