The first part of the Celebrity Recital which brought the Leeds Lieder Festival to a close was entitled “Schubert Looking North”, which included a section on German versions of British poets. The result was that the concert did not really pick up until we had got past it: perhaps it was that the magnificent baritone Benedict Nelson was not on top form, unlike Graham Johnson, his formidable accompanist, or perhaps it was because of Ossian. This is the name of the non-existent Irish bard from a couple of millennia ago invented by the 18th-century Scottish poet James MacPherson, who published supposed translations of his works and who was described by Samuel Johnson as “a mountebank”. Ossian was translated into other languages, notably German, by those who saw the poetry (Cronnan, for example) as significant, in contrast to those in Britain who saw it as tedious, even though it counted as fashionably romantic. Schubert’s music for Cronnan transforms it to some extent, but in this concert it was something of a dead weight. Sir Walter Scott is in a different romantic league, but even Schubert’s version of his Lied des gefangenen Jägers (“Song of the Imprisoned Huntsman”) and of Romanze des Richard Löwenherz (“The Crusader’s Return”) seemed to lack adequate spirit. At least we were made aware of Schubert’s talent for extended songs – longer than usual, in other words.

Benedict Nelson © Chris Gloag
Benedict Nelson
© Chris Gloag

It was not until we reached Winterlied and the following shorter Lieder that things started to pick up a little, when Nelson started to give the impression that he really believed in what he was doing. This was most noticeable in Herbst (“Autumn”). He is not a performer who relies very much on gestures, more one who relies simply and nobly on his full-bodied, smooth voice, who invites the listener to make an instinctive connection, to join him in private contemplations, personal anguishes. Perhaps it was the score, which he was using, eyes down, for most of the time, giving us glances occasionally, but I would have liked at least some of his stage skills to have been used, or even to see his face full-on for more than a few seconds. However, Punschlied im Norden zu singen (“Punch Song – to be sung in the North”), with words by Schiller and which came just before the interval, was stirring, partly because of the dance rhythm (a polonaise) in the accompaniment.

As in previous festival concerts, French was dominant in the second part, as employed by Charles Baudelaire and the surrealist poet Paul Eluard. After Baudelaire’s L’invitation au voyage, with music by Henri Duparc, we were presented with a new work by Judith Bingham, My Heart Laid Bare (“Mon Coeur mis à nu”), five settings of selected pieces of prose from Baudelaire’s Journaux Intimes (“Intimate Diaries”), which the composer considers to be as poetic as the Fleurs du Mal themselves. This was gripping, a series of musical statements which got straight to the point, Baudelaire’s brief and anguished paragraphs treated as if they were fragments of scripts from thrillers, or horror films. Her startling melodies and dissonances, never too much, gave us truly sensual pleasures. These were especially thrilling in L’Air Amoureux, where Baudelaire compares love to an application of torture or a surgical operation: “Entendez-vous ces soupirs, préludes d'une tragédie de déshonneur, ces gémissements, ces cris, ces râles?” (“Do you hear these sighs, preludes to a shameful tragedy, these groans, these screams, these rattling gasps?”) Repulsion was in Bingham’s music as well as in the Baudelaire, when he writes about beauty disappearing under a crust of smallpox. Delectable shuddering! This composer should give us more work stemming from Baudelaire, or from Edgar Allan Poe.

Poulenc’s last song cycle, devoted to painters who had inspired him as well as the poet, came at the end of the recital. This was uplifting. The final song, about the cubist painter Jacques Villon, was sung with great zest. We had come a long way from Ossian.