The sharp linguistic and enunciative abilities of Romanian mezzo Adriana Festeu are as impressive as her singing. Accompanied by Nico de Villiers, she launched “Leeds Lieder+ From Europe to America – A Day of Song” in the morning at Leeds University’s Clothworkers Hall with “Songs My Mother Taught Me”. She dealt very convincingly with Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs in Czech, followed by 5 Lieder, Op. 38 by Korngold in English, and George Enescu’s Sept Chansons de Clément Marot in French.

Adriana Festeu © Charlotte Snowden
Adriana Festeu
© Charlotte Snowden

She ranged easily from the subtle to the strident, from the jaunty to the bloodthirsty. Her version of the melancholy “A les je tichý kolem kol” (“The forest is quiet all around”), contrasted powerfully and dramatically with the song which followed: “Když mne stará matka zpívat” (“When my old mother taught me to sing”). And her climactic flourish at the end of the final gypsy song, which asks whether a hawk would be happy in a cage of pure gold, was very much in accord with the spirit of the collection (which gives a heavily romanticised view of the largest ethnic minority in Europe).

She entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of Korngold’s “Old English Song” as well, which is about hacking out the spleens of Spanish sailors and seeing their corpses bobbing on the tide. She beamed a wide, disarming smile at us before tackling Shakespeare’s “My Mistress’ Eyes” and moving on to the seven Enescu songs, with their classical allusions and light humour. She seemed more comfortable with these.

One of the events on a day brimful with talent and accomplished performances (a little too much for one review) was a celebration, using rare recordings, of the art of the great soprano Dame Margaret Price, but there was major concern for the creative spirits of the future: the Composers + Poets Forum, open to the public, ran for the middle part of the Day, culminating in a Showcase in the early evening. This was a revamped version of an established project pioneered by Leeds Lieder+ in which young student composers were asked to collaborate with poets of varying ages, most of them local in Yorkshire. The Forum provided a fascinating insight into the processes involved, a panel of four pundits scrutinizing each rehearsal and gently probing each of the composers about their decisions and motivations. It was clear that all of the paired-up artists had found common ground soon after their first meetings.

The results, later heard in the Showcase, did not disappoint. Mezzo-soprano Simone Ibbet-Brown’s voice conveyed intimacy and warmth in The Store (music by James Cave, words by Niall Campbell), a poem in which the natural world invades a home. Snatches of birdsong and scurrying ant notes (Jon Brigg at the piano) embellished it. For A Blue Scent Rises, Síle Moriarty sent her composer (Alexander Clark) a series of delicate fragments which included the haiku: “Painted petalled stems / in a jar. From the canvas / a blue scent rises.” Clark assembled them to mutual satisfaction, and the result was a setting reminiscent of folk song, well delivered by soprano Lizy Eames, with piano by Grazianna Presicce.

Adrian Salmon stood in for the pneumonia-stricken tenor Andrew Butterfield at the very last moment, and did full justice to the words of Zaffar Kunial and the music of Matthew Malone in Darshan, a subtle poem about an observer’s response to the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare. Hannah Donkin was at the piano. The trauma of a child separated from his parents and lost in the Peak District provided poet Matthew Hedley Stoppard and composer Ben Mungovin with the inspiration for the highly emotional Discovery on the Outskirts of Matlock. Soprano Carole Lindsey, accompanied by David Hepworth, built up beautifully to a thrilling spoken climax at the end. The most forceful one for me was Dry Veins, which begins and ends with spoken words. The poem, by John Darley, is scattered across two pages, its typography well matched by Alannah Halay’s startling music. With Dan Holden at the piano, exploring its percussive aspects, soprano Rhiannon Beck excelled. The dramatic pauses and long-fading resonances were most effective.

The final concert was “Dichterliebe and the English Romantics”. Benedict Nelson, with Gary Matthewman at the piano, was as compelling in the Heine and Schumann Lieder as he was in Roger Quilter’s settings of Shakespeare songs. He was a commanding presence in “Ich grolle nicht”, giving us a precisely-controlled tempest. This, along with “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai”, is one of two from Dichterliebe which have been selected, translated and arranged as “Cool Lieder” by Leeds Lieder+ for use in schools. Pictures, teaching notes accompany them, together with recordings made by student singers and pianists. The creative spirits of the future are all there in the world of education, waiting for the call.

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