The first piece at this afternoon concert, in the beautifully restored Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall in the School of Music at Leeds University, dated from 2004: the song-cycle In Praise of Dreams, four poems by the Nobel prize-winning Wisława Szymborska translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, composed by Birmingham-based Joe Cutler. Soprano Sarah Leonard, who was responsible for the original commission, sang with Stephen Gutman on piano. Both are leading exponents of contemporary music. It was a refreshing, in places startling, beginning.

Sarah Leonard and Stephen Gutman
Sarah Leonard and Stephen Gutman

Szymborska’s preoccupations, obsessions and gentle ironies are transformed by Cutler into something more neurotic, or melodramatic, than the originals, but it works well. He seems to have taken her lines “My brilliance as a pianist / would stun you” as his main point of inspiration, because the whole cycle is an exercise in brilliance, skilfully performed by Gutman, who at one point uses his own voice, speaking lines in a low undertone against the soprano’s high notes. There are a few Stravinskian flavours: heavy, slowly fading bass notes and passages of painful melancholy. Leonard excels in particular in the final poem “Elegiac Calculations”, bringing out the subtleties of lines like “They don’t want / (if they don’t want) to say that anymore. / They’ve given themselves up to endless / (if not otherwise) silence...” with a rich clarity.

Bryn Harrison’s Five Distances was next, introduced accurately as something completely different. It is one of the pieces commissioned for the 2011 Leeds Lieder+ Festival, which I reviewed in October, a series of brief spiritual landscapes, two of them instrumental, which last year made a Turner painting cross my mind – but this time I found myself examining the pastel blues of the walls, because it came as a kind of anticlimax after the intensity of the previous song-cycle.

Out of Memory, by poet Lydia Machell and composer Stephen Jackson, was performed by baritone Edward Marsh and pianist Jamie Matthew. This is about a singer’s relationship with a computer (“my beige beauty / my cyclops love”) and is compared by the poet with Brecht and Eisler’s technological love song “An meinen kleinen Radioapparat”, because it is about dependency, obsession and resentment. Fair enough, but it is also funny. The notes trickle down pleasantly for “You show me your hourglass / with its magic sand...”

I heard Amy McCauley’s Inhale Heart at last October’s Composers and Poets event for Leeds Lieder+, and considered it to be significant, but on this occasion I was really impressed. The macabre story behind the song is an urban myth surrounding the origins of the word “sweetheart”. A woman removes her husband’s dead heart and puts it in a box, which she wears round her neck. She speaks to, and for, the ripped-out organ. The composer is Lewis Murphy. It was performed by the excellent Holly Hunter at the piano and a superb mezzo-soprano of whom we will be hearing much more in the future: Catriona Morison, who was agile and dramatic, with a bloodcurdling exclamation in the middle. Both performers are students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

The second new commission of the afternoon was Adonis Images, by Gabriel Jackson and the Latvian poet Karlis Verdins, who wrote six short poems in English to the existing music, based on the Adonis chapters from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. All six are strong attempts to conjure up different aspects of the ancient cult, because Verdins quickly gets under those pagan skins (“The river is red with his blood, / There’s a crimson stain on the sea.”) and Jackson’s treatment of each aspect is carefully differentiated, beginning with what he describes as “doleful and laden” and ending with a capturing of “the poem’s lush, but ultimately redemptive, grief”. It was ceremonial, an unusual type of liturgy, an effective raising of ghosts from millennia ago.

I was happy to experience Ian Duhig’s poem False Relations (composer Edward Bell), a fitting end-piece for the concert, with its witty references to the artist’s ego (“As full of himself as an egg...”) and to Molly, who is an opera singer as well as Bloom’s wife in Joyce’s Ulysses. Leonard’s music hall persona made an entry for this, which she sang with an engaging charm, arms outstretched. Her closing line – “where’s my bouquet?” brought all the applause she deserved.