A worst-case scenario could come true, perhaps, with opinionated student composers and sensitive local poets falling out, at each other’s throats perhaps, but this has not happened so far. Quite the opposite. A well-established event at the Leeds Lieder Festival, the Composers and Poets Forum and Showcase has become increasingly popular, because it gives insights into what is going on in young (well, mostly young) creative minds, because people are attracted to the idea of composers actually collaborating with still-living authors of texts and because some unexpected results can always be expected. Pairing up processes, which begin months before the event, tend to work smoothly, and rules are minimal: songs have to be about five minutes in length and be written for voice and piano.

Martyn Noble and Sarah Lenney at Leeds Lieder © Robert Piwko
Martyn Noble and Sarah Lenney at Leeds Lieder
© Robert Piwko

Vogelstimmen (Birdsong) was the title for the collaboration between Erica MacLeod and poet Doug Sandle, a Germanic version of the original one, possibly adopted to go with the musical style. The poem has a powerful ominous quality (“Birds know when the world ends”) and should be a gift for a musician, with its many references to sounds and its implied reference to Hitchcock’s film The Birds, but soprano Georgina Thorburn, although she tried robustly to convey mounting distress, was practically obliterated for most of the song by the competing alarm notes from the piano (pianist Ashley Beauchamp), and it was quite a relief to hear her clearly for the last few lines, finishing with a vocal glissando.

Paul Adrian’s poem Kiyoko and The Maple is based on a pretty myth about a young poet who paints Japanese characters (Kanji) on maple leaves in an unsuccessful attempt to win the love of the Shogun’s daughter, and all of its force is unleashed in the last couple of lines, but we did not get further than a half-way point. Joseph Shaw’s composition, sung by baritone John Holland-Avery, seemed inappropriately slow, and life was breathed into it only when pianist Hector Leung took over almost completely with a series of short repetitive sequences.

Short, darting and twisting piano sequences (pianist Ben Cockburn) were also employed in Lark (poet Gail Mosley, composer Liam Brigg), a touching, intimate poem about grandmother and grandson in the early morning. Mezzo-soprano Rachel Dangerfield sang in a restrained way, which matched the references to tip-toeing and creeping, and to settling down to watch children’s characters on a screen – like Kermit the Frog.

Long Meg and Her Daughters (composer and pianist Harriet Grainger, poet Hilary Robinson) resulted from a visit to a Bronze Age stone circle near Penrith. The poet asked advice there on modern matters, but the music did not seem to fit the mood until about half-way through, when it gathered power, sung by mezzo-soprano Elaine Bishop. It worked best for “Now tell me how I can be saved, /how I’ll survive the pieces/ breaking off, not bleed to death.”

The singer in Orchids, Thrift and Silverweed (composer Matthew Grouse, poet Margaret Greenwood, pianist Fionnuala Ward) was mezzo-soprano Charlotte Heslop, who utterly transformed the piece with her particularly rich voice and a manner which made her look fully seasoned. She was operatically smooth against a sometimes jerky piano. The whole thing was like a sound-track for a dreamy film. Charlotte’s might be a career to follow.

Soprano Diana Tort also had great stage presence when she sang Rose Drew’s words in born (hyphen) deceased, which is a kind of boiled-down autobiography. The singer used her hands to help with whole-body communication, and it worked very well. The music (composer Emily Levy) fitted the abrupt, stripped-down lines right through to the subdued poet’s invitation to empathise (‘See me as you, /and sense your life…’) and the accompanist (Guy Murgatroyd) was crisply alert.

Hannah Stone’s A Melancholy Hope, cleverly written in stanzas of alternate seven and six syllables, was given a romantic treatment by composer Howard Auster. Words were rearranged and fished out from the original at various stages, and the pianist (Ben Cockburn) was given relatively lengthy opportunities to enhance them, for example when the poet is “leaden, hopeless, dumb”. Yonni Levy had the right kind of lyrical tenor voice for the work, and he led the audience most satisfyingly towards the final plea: “Spin, cruel world!/ At least leave hope!”

The final collaboration, Green Children of Woolpit, was refreshingly playful and bizarre. Jimmy Andrex’s dialogue-rich poem is a tribute to an English folk tale with an Anglo-Saxon feel to it, in which two green-skinned children are discovered outside a medieval Suffolk village, speaking an unknown language. The performance of Amy Bryce’s setting by mezzo-soprano Sarah Lenney, who wore green clothes and make-up for the occasion, was startlingly impressive. She had great range, and a strong dramatic manner, and that should have been enough. Pianist Martyn Noble was fine, but he was made to try too hard: plucking the bare strings was unnecessary.