Leeds Lieder+, the northern biennial festival of art song, began on Friday night with Bright is the Ring of Words. Advertised as a celebration of British verse, the evening featured settings of the words of Lord Byron, Robert Louis Stevenson and Shakespeare by a diverse range of composers including Mendelssohn, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Richard Strauss, Roger Quilter and John Dankworth. At the piano was the festival's Artistic Director, world-famous accompanist Malcolm Martineau, and he was joined on stage by English soprano Sarah Fox, up and coming tenor Nicky Spence and renowned actor Jamie Parker (of The History Boys and Valkyre fame) who gave wonderful readings between the songs.

The evening opened with the words of Byron, and some diverse settings of his poetry by Sir Hubert Parry, Hugo Wolf and Mendelssohn. Sarah Fox's rendition of Sun of the Sleepless was beautiful, and seemed full of light. Her top notes are extremely clear and pure but at the heart of her voice is a rich, heavy quality that adds depth and passion to emotional songs. In between the music and lyrics, Jamie Parker introduced the audience to the life of Lord Byron, integrating the letters and diaries of the poet with biographical information and verse. The section ended with the risqué and spirited The Lisbon Packet set to music by Hugo Woolf, reminding us that there was more to the mad, bad and dangerous Byron than romantic verse.

Robert Louis Stevenson followed Byron, with Parker bringing us (in a very precise Edinburgh accent) the writer's own words regarding foreign travel. This was interwoven with Ralph Vaughan Williams famous setting of Stevenson's Songs of Travel. Usually baritone territory, songs from the cycle were here performed by Nicky Spence, who brought the required drama to The Vagabond, and a softer, very beautiful atmosphere to Let Beauty Awake and Youth and Love. His interpretation of the latter was one of the highlights of the evening, with the final line 'Call him with lighted lamp in the eventide' absolutely stunning.

Post interval, we were introduced to Shakespeare with Fox's rendition of John Dankworth's light-hearted jazz piece The Compleat Works before some far more serious settings of verse from Twelfth Night, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet and The Sonnets by a wide variety of composers were performed. Roger Quilter's well known and extremely beautiful Come Away, come away, death featuring words from Twelfth Night was particularly lovely, with Spence bringing out all of its gorgeous, lyrical melancholy. The slightly more upbeat O mistress mine, where are you roaming (also a setting of verse from Twelfth Night by Quilter) broke the sad mood, with Fox's rich, pretty voice ringing pleasantly around the recital hall.

There was comedy too, with another John Dankworth composition, Dunsinane Blues, performed with great energy (and a few dance moves) by Spence and an encore of Brush Up Your Shakespeare from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate resulting in much hilarity. Parker's readings during the second half of the recital were incredibly funny, powerful and moving. He's no stranger to Shakespeare, having portrayed Prince Hal in Henry IV parts I and II and Oliver in As You Like It at the Globe, and he brought his expertise to readings of Macbeth's 'tomorrow' soliloquy, Sonnet 130 and Prospero's famous speech from The Tempest, which, with it's famous 'We are such stuff As dreams are made on; and our little life Is rounded with a sleep' seemed to leave the Leeds audience slightly spellbound.

Bright is the Ring of Words was a wonderful festival opener, combining the serious with the light-hearted across a range of musical genres. Bringing the works of so many different composers together in a celebration of the poets who inspired them put a completely new emphasis on the music, and encouraged the audience to think more deeply about some of the world's best loved classical songs.