“Made in Yorkshire” was a misleading title for this afternoon concert because the connections with the county were tenuous: tenor Joshua Ellicott made a point of reminding us before he started that he was born on the other side of the Pennines, and the only apparent link for soprano Bibi Heal, clarinettist Colin Honour and the man at the piano Anthony Kraus (a popular and respected chorusmaster and conductor as well) is that they have all worked for Opera North and flourished with it at the Grand Theatre in Leeds. Who’s worried anyway? They were all on top form, and the programme was very pleasing. The landscapes they sang about might not have been those of Yorkshire, either, but they were just as beautiful, if such a thing is possible. Scotland was the place which was evoked most frequently, because it was the subject of many of Robert Louis Stevenson’s nostalgic Songs of Travel, written while he was sailing around the Pacific near Samoa, haunted by images of the craggy countryside of his childhood, thousands of miles away. It was good to be reminded of the fact that Stevenson, widely underestimated and less than fashionable in the last century, was a great writer, a fact which Vaughan Williams knew well.

Joshua Ellicott
Joshua Ellicott

The songs were not completely about the joys of travelling and the open road: even the first one in the concert, The Vagabond, has the lines “Wealth I seek not, hope nor love, / Nor a friend to know me”, but the melancholy here was not played up by Ellicott, who sang heroically, mostly at full throttle. He gave us strong contrasts in Let Beauty Awake and The Roadside Fire, and showed that he knows how to deliver a closing line to maximum effect – as in “Ah me! But he that left you with a smile / Forgets you not” – with sensitive pianissimo. My favourite was Whither must I wander? In this, Ellicott sang the sad story of a man yearning for home with precision and great respect for the meaning, and I thought of what I had learned in the pre-concert talk (the Leeds Lieder Festival cannot be beaten on the educational side), that Stevenson, an amateur musician, was acquainted with some of Schubert’s work, notably Winterreise. I was reminded more strongly of sentimental Celtic songs about the old country than Alpine equivalents.

The great man himself was next on the list, and the singer was Bibi Heal, well-accompanied by Colin Honour. Her interpretation of Schubert’s famous Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“The Shepherd on the Rocks”), composed during his terminal illness, was excellent, as she took us movingly through its three parts, beginning with graphic descriptions of a resounding mountain valley, moving through sorrow and loneliness and ending with joy for the coming spring. She acted the part like a true operatic professional, and really came into her own in the utterly different Nous voulons une petite soeur (“We want a little sister”) by Poulenc, which must surely one of her party pieces, because she seems to be at her best with comic material, like this song, which employs childish words and phrases in French, as used by the seventeen daughters of an unfortunate Madame Eustache. It must have been a devil to learn. Heal has a wonderful store of gestures to draw upon. Her version of Noël Coward’s Mrs Worthington was bland in comparison, but “Nina”, from Sigh No More, was performed with panache after she had extracted herself charmingly from a faux-pas, as a seasoned performer would. Coward is more difficult than he seems at first, but Heal was brilliantly successful in the tale of a senorita who “swore she’d never dance a step until she died”.

She paired up with Ellicott for Irving Berlin’s Cheek to Cheek in a voluptuously smoochy version of the most parodied song in history, and then again for Cole Porter’s feel-good love song Who wants to be a Millionaire? which sent out the feeling that we were welcoming the spring again. This concert was definitely a highly successful part of the festival.

****1